More than 8,000 people have died as a consequence of the earthquake that struck Nepal on 25 April 2015. Over 16,000 people have been injured and hundreds-of-thousands left homeless. Those figures will rise further in the coming days as substantial damage and destruction – inflicted on an already insufficient healthcare system – has meant hospitals are turning patients away due to lack of supplies or capacity. In the capital, Kathmandu, with a population of over one million, the city’s maternity hospital has just 150 beds available due to partial destruction. The response of the so-called ‘international community’ has been typical. Whilst aid agencies such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières have deployed much-needed emergency workers, few governments have gone further than pledges of money, food or supplies by committing to provision of the necessary medical aid.
It is in this context that in the early morning of Friday 8 May a team of forty-nine Cubans, part of the prestigious Henry Reeve International Brigade (a ten-thousand-strong band of Cuban health professionals specialising in disaster response) departed for Nepal. On arrival the team will establish a field hospital equipped with surgery and intensive care units, diagnostics, consultation areas and recovery services – all provided by Cuba’s socialist government. From the moment the disaster struck, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs investigated the unfolding situation and began to make the necessary preparations for an effective, long-term medical intervention.
For Cuba, this is no diplomatic gesture or publicity stunt nor is it an act of ‘charity’. The Cuban response to the Nepalese disaster is only the latest example in the socialist’s nation’s long history of internationalism – a history of consistent solidarity with the working class and oppressed of the world. Following Chile’s Valdivia earthquake of May 1960 – little more than a year after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution when half of Cuba’s 6,000 doctors left to ply their trade in the US or elsewhere – the people’s revolutionary government sacrificed hundreds of doctors to serve their sisters and brothers in the disaster zones of Chile. Since then Cuba has deployed over 185,000 health workers as part of more than half-a-million health missions in 158 different countries worldwide. As part of these missions, Cuban health teams have conducted over 1.2 billion medical consultations, 5 million operations, immunised 12 million children and pregnant mothers, and delivered 2.2 million babies alongside the training of local people as health assistants and educators – equipping local communities with the skills needed to practice effective preventative medicine in their own local and cultural context. Today, over 50,000 Cuban medical personal are posted in 66 countries. Cuban medical teams are at their overseas posts for the long-haul – living amongst the communities they are serving for two-years at a time – before being replaced by the next round of Cuban volunteers. Meanwhile, local youth can enrol on a fully-funded, six-year medicine course, courtesy of Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), with the possibility of completing their final years of study alongside Cuban doctors in their home countries, and on the understanding that they will return to serve and practice preventative medicine in their local communities.
Cuba’s socialist internationalism has taken many forms over the last five decades, whether we look to the 300,000 Cuban soldiers sent to Angola in the decisive fight against apartheid South Africa and its reactionary allies (1975-91); to the island nation’s vast overseas education programmes that in the last fifteen years have assisted over 8 million people in 30 countries to acquire basic literacy skills and helped eradicate illiteracy in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela; or to Cuba’s leading role through the past decade in spearheading Latin American integration and mutual development – a major challenge to imperialist domination of the region. The achievements of Cuba’s great internationalist example give substance to the rallying cry un mundo mejor es posible (a better world is possible). The fight for such a world goes on – and socialist Cuba remains at the heart of it.
Patrick Casey for Rock Around the Blockade