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Cuba's Aid to Haiti Ignored by the US Media?

Tom Fawthrop

After the quake struck, Haiti's first medical aid came from Cuba. (Gallo/Getty)

Among the many donor nations helping Haiti, Cuba and its medical teams have played a major role in treating earthquake victims.

Public health experts say the Cubans were the first to set up
medical facilities among the debris and to revamp hospitals immediately
after the earthquake struck.

However, their pivotal work in the health sector has received scant media coverage.

"It is striking that there has been
virtually no mention in the media of the fact that Cuba had several
hundred health personnel on the ground before any other country," said
David Sanders, a professor of public health from Western Cape
University in South Africa.

The Cuban team coordinator in Haiti, Dr Carlos Alberto Garcia, says
the Cuban doctors, nurses and other health personnel have been working
non-stop, day and night, with operating rooms open 18 hours a day.

a visit to La Paz hospital in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, Dr
Mirta Roses, the director of the Pan American Health Organisation
(PAHO) which is in charge of medical coordination between the Cuban
doctors, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a host
of health sector NGOs, described the aid provided by Cuban doctors as
"excellent and marvellous".

La Paz is one of five hospitals in Haiti that is largely staffed by health professionals from Havana.

History of cooperation

Haiti and Cuba signed a medical cooperation agreement in 1998.

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

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

"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.

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. 

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.     Left out

But while representatives from MSF and the ICRC are frequently in
front of television cameras discussing health priorities and medical
needs, the Cuban medical teams are missing in the media coverage.

Richard Gott, the Guardian newspaper's former foreign
editor and a Latin America specialist, explains: "Western media are
programmed to be indifferent to aid that comes from unexpected places.
In the Haitian case, the media have ignored not just the Cuban
contribution, but also the efforts made by other Latin American

Brazil is providing $70mn in funding for 10 urgent care units, 50
mobile units for emergency care, a laboratory and a hospital, among
other health services.

Venezuela has cancelled all Haiti debt
and has promised to supply oil free of charge until the country has
recovered from the disaster.

Western NGOs employ media officers to ensure that the world knows what they are doing.

to Gott, the Western media has grown accustomed to dealing with such
NGOs, enabling a relationship of mutual assistance to develop.

medical teams, however, are outside this predominantly Western
humanitarian-media loop and are therefore only likely to receive
attention from Latin American media and Spanish language broadcasters
and print media.

There have, however, been notable exceptions to this reporting
syndrome. On January 19, a CNN reporter broke the silence on the Cuban
role in Haiti with a report on Cuban doctors at La Paz hospital.

Cuba/US cooperation

When the US requested that their military plans be allowed to
fly through Cuban airspace for the purpose of evacuating Haitians to
hospitals in Florida, Cuba immediately agreed despite almost 50 years
of animosity between the two countries.

Josefina Vidal, the director of the Cuban foreign ministry's North
America department, issued a statement declaring that: "Cuba is ready
to cooperate with all the nations on the ground, including the US, to
help the Haitian people and save more lives."

This deal cut the flight time of medical evacuation flights from
the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's southern tip to Miami by
90 minutes.

According to Darby Holladay, the US state
department's spokesperson, the US has also communicated its readiness
to make medical relief supplies available to Cuban doctors in Haiti.

"Potential US-Cuban cooperation could go a long way toward meeting Haiti's needs," says Dr Julie Feinsilver, the author of Healing the Masses - a book about Cuban health diplomacy, who argues that maximum cooperation is urgently needed.

Rich in human resources  

Cuba is a poor developing country, their wealth of human resources -
doctors, engineers and disaster management experts - has enabled this
small Caribbean nation to play a global role in health care and
humanitarian aid alongside the far richer nations of the west.

Cuban medical teams played a key role in the wake of the Indian
Ocean Tsunami and provided the largest contingent of doctors after the
2005 Pakistan earthquake. They also stayed the longest among
international medical teams treating the victims of the 2006 Indonesian

In the Pakistan relief operation the US and Europe dispatched
medical teams. Each had a base camp with most doctors deployed for a
month. The Cubans, however, deployed seven major base camps, operated
32 field hospitals and stayed for six months.

Bruno Rodriguez, who is now Cuba's foreign minister, headed the
mission - living in the mountains of Pakistan for more than six months.

Just after the Indonesian earthquake a year later, I met with Indonesia's then regional health co-coordinator, Dr Ronny Rockito.

had sent 135 health workers and two field hospitals. Rockito said that
while the medical teams from other countries departed after just one
month, he asked the Cuban medical team to extend their stay.

"I appreciate the Cuban medical team. Their style is very friendly. Their medical standard is very high," he told me.

"The Cuban [field] hospitals are fully complete and it's free, with no financial support from our government."

Rockito says he never expected to see Cuban doctors coming to his country's rescue.

"We felt very surprised about doctors coming from a poor country, a country so far away that we know little about.

"We can learn from the Cuban health system. They are very fast to
handle injuries and fractures. They x-ray, then they operate straight

A 'new dawn'?

The Montreal summit, the first gathering of 20 donor nations, agreed
to hold a major conference on Haiti's future at the United Nations in

Some analysts see Haiti's rehabilitation as a potential opportunity
for the US and Cuba to bypass their ideological differences and combine
their resources - the US has the logistics while Cuba has the human
resources - to help Haiti.

Feinsilver is convinced that "Cuba should be given a seat at the
table with all other nations and multilateral organisations and
agencies in any and all meetings to discuss, plan and coordinate aid
efforts for Haiti's reconstruction".

"This would be in
recognition of Cuba's long-standing policy and practise of medical
diplomacy, as well as its general development aid to Haiti," she says.

will Haiti offer the US administration, which has Cuba on its list of
nations that allegedly "support terrorism", a "new dawn" in its
relations with Cuba?

In late January, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, thanked
Cuba for its efforts in Haiti and welcomed further assistance and

In Haiti's grand reconstruction plan, Feinsilver
argues, "there can be no imposition of systems from any country, agency
or institution. The Haitian people themselves, through what remains of
their government and NGOs, must provide the policy direction, and Cuba
has been and should continue to be a key player in the health sector in

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