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One of the World's Best Kept Secrets: Cuban Medical Aid to Haiti - Main Stream Media Doesn't See It

yy014Consumers of U.S. corporate media were given the impression that the American invasion/disaster relief action was the primary foreign benefactor to Haiti’s hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims. Not so, not by a long shot. Cuba, Venezuela and the neighboring Dominican Republic were first on the scene with the most help, and have committed to building a comprehensive health care system for Haiti. “The Cuban medical contingent was roughly three times the size of the American staff, although they treated 260.7 times more patients than U.S. medical personnel.” Media coverage of Cuban medical cooperation following the disastrous recent earthquake in Haiti was sparse indeed.


International news reports usually described the Dominican Republic as being the first to provide assistance, while Fox News sang the praises of U.S. relief efforts in a report entitled "U.S. Spearheads Global Response to Haiti Earthquake" – a common theme of its extensive coverage. CNN also broadcast hundreds of reports, and in fact one focused on a Cuban doctor wearing a T-shirt with a large image of Che Guevara – and yet described him as a "Spanish doctor." In general, international news reports ignored Cuba's efforts. By March 24, CNN for example, had 601 reports on their news website regarding the earthquake in Haiti – of which only 18 (briefly) referenced Cuban assistance. Similarly, between them the New York Times and the Washington Post had 750 posts regarding the earthquake and relief efforts, though not a single one discusses in any detail any Cuban support. In reality, however, Cuba's medical role had been extremely important-and had been present since 1998.

History of cooperation

Haiti and Cuba signed a medical cooperation agreement in 1998. Before the earthquake struck, 344 Cuban health professionals were already present in Haiti, providing primary care and obstetrical services as well as operating to restore the sight of Haitians blinded by eye diseases.

More doctors were flown in shortly after the earthquake, as part of the rapid response Henry Reeve Medical Brigade of disaster specialists. The brigade has extensive experience in dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, having responded to such disasters in China, Indonesia and Pakistan.

"In the case of Cuban doctors, they are rapid responders to disasters, because disaster management is an integral part of their training," explains Maria a Hamlin Zúniga, a public health specialist from Nicaragua.

They are fully aware of the need to reduce risks by having people prepared to act in any disaster situation.

Cuban doctors have been organising medical facilities in three revamped and five field hospitals, five diagnostic centres, with a total of 22 different care posts aided by financial support from Venezuela. They are also operating nine rehabilitation centres staffed by nearly 70 Cuban physical therapists and rehab specialists, in addition to the Haitian medical personnel.

The Cuban team has been assisted by 100 specialists from Venezuela, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Canada and 17 nuns.

Havana has also sent 400,000 tetanus vaccines for the wounded.

Eduardo Nuñez Valdes, a Cuban epidemiologist who is currently in Port-au-Prince, has stressed that the current unsanitary conditions could lead to an epidemic of parasitic and infectious diseases if not acted upon quickly.

Media silence

However, in reporting on the international aid effort, Western media have generally not ranked Cuba high on the list of donor nations.

One major international news agency's list of donor nations credited Cuba with sending over 30 doctors to Haiti, whereas the real figure stands at more than 350, including 280 young Haitian doctors who graduated from Cuba. The final figure accounts for a combined total of 930 health professionals in all Cuban medical teams making it the largest medical contingent on the ground.

Another batch if 200 Cuban-trained doctors from 24 countries in Africa and Latin American, and a dozen American doctors who graduated from Havana are currently en route to Haiti and will provide reinforcement to existing Cuban medical teams.

By comparison the internationally-renowned Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders) has approximately 269 health professionals working in Haiti. MSF is much better funded and has far more extensive medical supplies than the Cuban team.

Comparative Medical Contributions in Haiti by March 23

MSF        Canada     United States     Cuba


No. of Staff

3,408        45               550                1,504

No. of Patients Treated

54,000      21,000         871             227,143

No. of Surgeries

3,700          0              843                6,499


These comparative data, compiled from several sources, are particularly telling as they indicate the significant (and widely ignored) medical contribution of the Cubans. In fact, they have treated 4.2 times the number of patients compared with MSF (which has over twice as many workers, as well as significantly more financial resources), and 10.8 times more than the Canadian DART team. (As noted, Canadian and US medical personnel had left by March 9).  Also notable is the fact that the Cuban medical contingent was roughly three times the size of the American staff, although they treated 260.7 times more patients than U.S. medical personnel. Clearly, there have been significant differences in the nature of medical assistance provided.

It is also important to note that approximately one-half of the Cuban medical staff was working outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, where there was significant damage as well. Many medical missions could not get there, however, due to transportation issues. Significantly, the Cuban medical brigade also worked to minimize epidemics by making up 30 teams to educate communities on how to properly dispose of waste, as well as how to minimize public health risks.  Noted Cuban artist Kcho also headed a cultural brigade made up of clowns, magicians and dancers, supported by psychologists and psychiatrists, to deal with the trauma experienced by Haitian children.


Perhaps most impressively, following the growing concern for the health of the country, due to a poor and now largely destroyed health care system Cuba, working with ALBA (the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) countries, presented to the WHO an integral program to reconstruct the health care system of Haiti. Essentially, they are offering to rebuild the entire health care system.   It will be supported by ALBA and Brazil, and run by Cubans and Cuban-trained medical staff. This is to include hospitals, polyclinics, and medical schools. In addition, the Cuban government has offered to increase the number of Haitian students attending medical school in Cuba.   This offer of medical cooperation represents an enormous degree of support for Haiti. Sadly, this generous offer has not been reported by international media.

While North American media might have ignored Cuba's role, Haiti has not. A pointed remark was made by Haitian President Mr. René Préval, who noted, "you did not wait for an earthquake to help us". Similarly, Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has also repeatedly noted that the first three countries to help were Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), while Cuba's efforts to assist Haiti have increased, international efforts have continued to dwindle. The head of the Cuban medical mission, Dr. Carlos Alberto García, summed up well the situation just two weeks after the tragedy: "many foreign delegations have already begun to leave, and the aid which is arriving now is not the same it used to be. Sadly, as always happens, soon another tragedy will appear in another country, and the people of Haiti will be forgotten, left to their own fate".  Significantly, he added "However we will still be here long after they have all gone." This in fact has been the case.  Canadian forces, for example, returned home and the USNS Comfort sailed several weeks ago. By contrast, Cuban President Raúl Castro noted: "we have accompanied the Haitian people, and we will continue with them whatever time is needed, no matter how many years, with our very modest support".

A representative of the World Council of Churches to the United Nations made the telling comment that "humanitarian aid could not be human if it was only publicized for 15 days". Today Cuba, with the support of ALBA and Brazil, is working not to build a field hospital, but rather a health care system. And, while international efforts have been largely abandoned, the Cuban staff and Cuban-trained medical staff will remain, as they have done for the past 11 years, for as long as necessary.  This is a story that international media have chosen not to tell-now that the television cameras have gone. Yet it is an extraordinary story of true humanitarianism, and of great success in saving lives since 1998.  Moreover, in light of Cuba's success in providing public health care (at no cost to the patients) to millions of Haitians, this approach to preventive, culturally sensitive, low cost and effective medicine needs to be told.  That significant contribution to this impoverished nation, and Cuba's ongoing commitment to its people, clearly deserve to be recognized.  Until then it will sadly remain as one of the world's best- kept secrets.

(((Great essay: Cuban doctors in Haiti: `The worst tragedy is not being able to do more' ........ READ HERE )))




MaximsNewsNetwork: 04 March 2010 - UN MINUSTAH: Leogane, Haiti - The town of Leogane, some 15 kilometres south from Port-au-Prince was the epicentre of the deadly earthquake that hit Haiti two months ago. Reports say 5,000 people died and some 50,000 were wounded, while more than 80 percent of its buildings crumbled to rubble. It was a Cuban medical team who first reached Leogane and established this field hospital three days following the earthquake. Since then, some 20, 000 patients have been treated here.
Dr. Leonard Fernandez is one of the 53 strong Cuban medical team. He has already been in similar missions around the world. In the first days of his deployment to Haiti, he worked 22 hours a day.

SOUNDBITE (Spanish) Dr. Leonard Fernandez, Doctor, Intensive Therapy:
Now that we are coming out of the emergency phase, we are dealing more with support and consultation. We are also setting up hospital services. Actually, we are more inventing it like Cuban people are used to do it you know. So we provide a consultation room, a service of therapy, a surgical room. In fact, since the disaster, we have been providing all the support that we can.
Even before the disaster, Cuba had some 350 doctors and other health professionals working full time in Haiti as a part of an assistance programme. In the weeks following the earthquake, the number swelled to some 1500.

SOUNDBITE (Spanish) Dr. Jorge Balseiro Estevez, Director of Cuban Field Hospital in Leogane:
The institution as such is going to stay as long as needed. It could be years. It will probably change format. We will not stay as a field hospital clinic. We will have to look for a dedicated site where we can install our staff and help the people of Leogane which have been highly affected by the seism. This is not the first time that Cuba have come to help Haiti. In fact, the Haitian Cuban medical cooperation dates back to 1998, when Cuba came to assist Haitian survivors of a dramatic hurricane. Cuba is also hosting a number of Haitian youth studying at Cuban universities.

Lafrance Jean Herby was is a student at the medical university in Santiago de Cuba. When the earthquake struck on January 12, he decided to volunteer with the Cuban medical brigade to come and help his people.

SOUNDBITE (Creole) Lafrance Jean Herby, Haitian Gynecology Obstetric Nurse:
I am a resident in charge of maternity department. I am doing consultations and emergency cases.

About 300 people come here every day looking for medical assistance. Even though conditions are not ideal for this hospital, it is achieving impressive care. And the doctors are promising to be even more effective once they move into a more adequate space.








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