Why is Cuba Exporting Its Health Care Miracle To the World’s Poor?

Sarah-Van-Gelder.jpgBy Sarah van Gelder,
Executive Editor, YES!

U.S. Students in Cuba
Part Three

Recently, Cuba extended the offer of free medical training to students from the United States. It started when Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi got curious after he and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus repeatedly encountered Cuban or Cuban-trained doctors in poor communities around the world.
They visited Cuba in May 2000, and during a conversation with Fidel Castro, Thompson brought up the lack of medical access for his poor, rural constituents. “He [Castro] was very familiar with the unemployment rates, health conditions, and infant mortality rates in my district, and that surprised me,” Thompson said. Castro offered scholarships for low-income Americans under the same terms as the other international students?they have to agree to go back and serve their communities.
Today, about 90 young people from poor parts of the United States have joined the ranks of international students studying medicine in Cuba.
The offer of medical training is just one way Cuba has reached out to the United States. Immediately after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 1,500 Cuban doctors volunteered to come to the Gulf Coast. They waited with packed bags and medical supplies, and a ship ready to provide backup support. Permission from the U.S. government never arrived.
“Our government played politics with the lives of people when they needed help the most,” said Representative Thompson. “And that’s unfortunate.”
When an earthquake struck Pakistan shortly afterwards, though, that country’s government warmly welcomed the Cuban medical professionals. And 2,300 came, bringing 32 field hospitals to remote, frigid regions of the Himalayas. There, they set broken bones, treated ailments, and performed operations for a total of 1.7 million patients.
The disaster assistance is part of Cuba’s medical aid mission that has extended from Peru to Indonesia, and even included caring for 17,000 children sickened by the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine.
It isn’t only in times of disaster that Cuban health care workers get involved. Some 29,000 Cuban health professionals are now practicing in 69 countries – mostly in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. In Venezuela, about 20,000 of them have enabled President Hugo Chávez to make good on his promise to provide health care to the poor. In the shantytowns around Caracas and the banks of the Amazon, those who organize themselves and find a place for a doctor to practice and live can request a Cuban doctor.
As in Cuba, these doctors and nurses live where they serve, and become part of the community. They are available for emergencies, and they introduce preventative health practices.
Some are tempted to use their time abroad as an opportunity to leave Cuba. In August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a new policy that makes it easier for Cuban medical professionals to come to the U.S. But the vast majority remain on the job and eventually return to Cuba.
Sarah van Gelder, executive editor of YES!, was in Cuba (legally) in December 2006 visiting medical schools, clinics, and hospitals. Her travel was supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies, and MEDICC provided program consulting.