Reflections on Medical Internationalism
by John Kirk
John Kirk is Professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University, where he specializes
in Cuban political history. He has written/coedited several books on Cuba, including Redefining
Cuban Foreign Policy: The Impact of the “Special Period” (2006), and Culture and the Cuban
Revolution: Conversations in Havana (2001). Together with Michael Erisman he is writing a monograph
on Cuban medical internationalism.
Patria es humanidad.
José Martí’s assertion that the Cuban homeland is all of humanity sums up
elegantly the extraordinary generosity of spirit visible in Cuba’s medical internationalism
I am constantly surprised by Cuba’s ability to punch
above its weight, and nowhere is this more visible than in Cuba’s health contribution
in the developing and underdeveloped world.
The facts themselves are simply mind-boggling: 23,000 children, victims of
the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, have been treated in Cuba to date; some 1.3
million patients with eye problems in Latin America and the Caribbean have
been operated on under Operation Miracle (including the Bolivian soldier who
had executed Che Guevara in 1967, an impressive act of symbolic revenge by
Cuba); emergency medical brigades have operated since 1960, and in the past
three years alone over 4,000 medical staff have saved tens of thousands of lives
from Peru to Pakistan (Gorry, 2008); and the largest medical school in the
world, the Latin American School of Medicine, with 10,000 students from 30
countries registered, is on its way to training 100,000 doctors for Latin America
and the Caribbean within a decade (Field, 2006). In all, some 6,693 doctors have
already graduated, while 40,000 are currently being trained (Lage, 2008).
I first traveled to Cuba in 1976, I have met scores of medical people, almost all
of whom have participated in medical missions abroad, and am always
impressed by their commitment to serve and to view medical service as a basic
human right. By contrast, their North American counterparts usually cannot
see past the profit motive in public health.
In particular I am astonished at the Cuban approach to low-cost primary
health care, with an emphasis on preventive medicine. Since 1959 some
113,000 health professionals have worked in 103 countries, and in 2008 some
41,000 of them are working in 31 countries. A microcosm of this is the comprehensive
health program in effect since Hurricane Mitch devastated Central
America, killing some 30,000. Since then the results of Cuban collaboration
have been staggering: 96 million medical consultations, 834,000 births
attended, 2.4 million surgeries, and 1.7 million lives saved. By contrast I look
at the contribution of the G-8 countries, and I am embarrassed.
If we leave aside the mind-numbing data and reflect upon the positive
impact caused in dozens of countries around the globe, I am not surprised at
the popularity of the Cuban government. The elected leader of the Non-
Aligned Movement (of 118 nations), Cuba has long struggled against the U.S.
blockade (in 2008, 185 countries at the UN condemned it, with only 3 voting
in favor). In addition, Cuba was elected to the UN Human Rights Council
with the support of 135 countries. Cuban medical internationalism represents
good diplomacy. I am also convinced that, for Cuba, it represents a moral
obligation to less fortunate countries, a debt to be paid to humanity, as the
Cuban constitution outlines.
In sum, Cuba’s medical internationalism, providing more medical aid than
all of the industrialized countries combined, was aptly summed up by Cuban
Foreign Minister Pérez Roque in June 2007: “We don’t give out our leftovers;
instead we share what we have” (Forteza, 2007). Martí would agree.
2006 ¡Salud! http://www.saludthefilm.net/ns/elam/html.
2007 “Canciller cubano: No damos lo que nos sobra. Compartimos lo que tenemos.” World
Data Service Report, June 27. Cuba-L@list.unm.edu (accessed June 23, 2008).
2008 “Cuban health cooperation turns 45,” MEDICC Review 10: 44-46.
Lage Dávila, Carlos
2008 “El ALBA fue una inspiración, luego un proyecto, hoy es una esperanza.” Granma,
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES,
Issue 164, Vol. 36 No. 1,
January 2009 139-140
© 2009 Latin American Perspectives
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