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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.

Then there are more than 24,000 foreign medical students enrolled at Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine, mostly from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. The Cuban government provides full six-year scholarships, and the students commit to returning to their home countries upon graduation.

Cuba has even opened its classrooms to U.S. students from low-income families, and 130 Americans are currently studying medicine in Havana. Seven of the program’s American graduates have joined the Cuban brigade in Haiti.

And yet, given the way these medical programs are promoted by the communist government’s state-run media, it’s hard to view Cuba’s efforts as pure acts of disinterested humanitarianism.

Government television reports and newspaper articles about the heroism of Cuba’s efforts in Haiti often appear crafted with maximum propaganda value in mind, especially when there’s an opportunity to score political points against the United States.

Cuban coverage of the U.S. role in Haiti has focused extensively on the American military presence, depicting U.S. troops as callous occupiers. Other Cuban editorials have gone further, alleging covetous American designs on yet-undiscovered Haitian oil.

Such claims undermine the Cuban government’s altruistic self-image, said Cuba expert Phil Peters.

“I think that people around the world recognize the great contribution of Cuban doctors in Haiti,” wrote Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, on his blog, The Cuban Triangle. “I also think that Cuban propagandists diminish Cuba’s contribution when they show that for them, Haiti relief efforts are part of a political competition with the United States.”

Of course, for patients in Haiti, it matters little whether Cuba is motivated more by public health or public relations. Cuban doctors have a track record in Haiti and elsewhere that demonstrates an overarching interest in providing care to the needy, said Gail Reed, director of MEDICC, a U.S. non-profit that publishes a journal on Cuban medicine and is helping to provide material aid for the Cuban-trained Haitian doctors.

“The world responds when there’s a disaster, and responds generously, and that’s wonderful,” said Reed. “The point to me, however, is to build a strong public health system. And the fact that the Cubans have been in Haiti for more than 10 years indicates a commitment to building a public health system.” The Cuban doctors provide everything from vaccinations to maternity care to major surgery, staffing Haiti's public hospitals and clinics, rather than setting up private facilities of their own.

For those efforts, Reed said, Cuba deserves recognition and praise.

“Whether Cuba gets goodwill from its doctors, or for its global medical cooperation, well, shouldn’t it?,” she asked. “Shouldn’t it get some credit?”