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Cuban doctors in Haiti, and their promoters in Havana

Cuba's socialist system seems to thrive at the convergence of politics, medicine and international diplomacy.

A child victim is attended to by a doctor after an earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Jan. 13, 2010. According to Cuban authorities, Cuban medical personnel have treated more than 60,000 patients and performed more than 3,500 surgeries in Haiti. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — When the devastating earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Cuba’s emergency responders didn’t have far to travel. There were already some 350 Cuban medical personnel working in Haiti, sent by the Castro government to provide free care in nearly every Haitian municipality.

Since then, the number of Cuban doctors, nurses and other medical workers deployed to the disaster area has risen to 618, and the Cuban brigade is working alongside 402 Haitian graduates of Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine. According to Cuban authorities, these teams have treated more than 60,000 patients and performed more than 3,500 surgeries.

Their mission is driven by a simple principle, according to Fidel Castro.

"We are sending doctors, not soldiers," Castro wrote recently, taking a none-too-subtle swipe at the Obama administration’s Haiti relief effort, in one of his regular postings on the government website Cubadebate.

“In the midst of the Haitian tragedy,” said the ex-Cuban leader, who has retired from his role as president but still weighs in on foreign affairs, “thousands of U.S. Marine Corps infantrymen, troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, and other military forces have occupied Haitian territory. Even worse, neither the United Nations nor the U.S. government has offered an explanation to world public opinion for this mobilization of forces.”

Castro’s criticisms, along with other articles and editorials that have since appeared in Cuba’s state-run media, are a reminder that the island’s socialist system seems to thrive at the convergence of politics, medicine and international diplomacy. Of course, for Haitian earthquake victims and others in poor countries where medical care is desperately needed, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Despite Cuba’s relatively small size and chronically ill economy, its education system has turned the island into a powerhouse of international medicine. Cuba sends thousands of doctors and other medical personnel abroad on “international missions,” and brings planeloads of patients to Havana for free eye surgery or other procedures they might not otherwise afford.

According to government figures, about 35,000 Cuban health care professionals are currently working in 70 countries. Some are assigned in the spirit of pure humanitarian assistance, while others are deployed through medical service contracts that bring in much-needed revenue for the Cuban government, as in the case of Venezuela.

These programs have generated vast amounts of international goodwill toward Cuba, building a kind of soft power that benefits the Castro government in its public relations battles with the United States. Once an outcast in the region, the Cuban government has gradually restored diplomatic relations with nearly every country in the Americas (the U.S. being the main exception), despite the persistent image of Cuba’s “isolation.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/cuba/100208/doctors-haiti