In January this year Haiti was struck by a major earthquake which killed at least 220, 000 people, injured 300,000 and left 1.5million homeless. After the earthquake the media showed international aid pouring in from the worlds’ leading countries, the US received particularly positive coverage, and sent 1,000-bed hospital ship with a 550-person medical staff and stayed for 7 weeks, in which time they treated 871 patients, performing 843 surgical operations. However lost completely from media attention was the contribution made by Cuba. For the first 72 hours following the earthquake, Cuban doctors were in fact the main medical support for the country. Within the first 24 hours, they had completed 1,000 emergency surgeries, turned their living quarters into clinics, and were running the only medical centres in the country, including 5 small hospitals which they had previously built. Before the earthquake 344 Cuban doctors were already working in Haiti, with another 350 were sent by Cuba following the earthquake along with 546 graduates from across the world, who were trained in Cuban Medical Schools.
By the end of the initial crisis, they were working throughout Haiti in 20 rehabilitation centres and 20 hospitals, running 15 operating theatres, and had vaccinated 400,000. This is a remarkable achievement for a country which the UN still considers a developing nation. What is more remarkable is that this is not the only occasion that Cuba have made positive interventions during natural disasters. In 2005 Pakistan was hit by a massive earthquake, leaving 75, 000 people dead and 120, 000 seriously injured. As in Haiti leading world nations competed with each other about sending aid and our media kept us informed of how much was being raised and promised – in reality much of this assistance never materialised.
Again the media failed to report on the Cuban contribution. They sent 2, 465 medical workers, including 1, 400 fully qualified doctors. Most aid teams left after 5 weeks, the Cubans stayed for 8 months and many are still there. They have treated over 1 million people and carried out 12, 400 major surgeries. In addition they set up, and left behind 32 fully equipped field hospitals. No other country came close to providing this level of assistance. In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans the Cubans offered to send 1, 200 doctors to the area and were turned away. The actions of the Cubans in providing such impressive medical response raises a number of questions. How as, as a third world country, were they able to provide assistance that surpassed that of fully developed first world countries such as the US and Britain? Why are these medical interventions given little or no media coverage?
To answer the how and the why requires looking at the Cuban attitude to healthcare. Essentially the Cubans see education and healthcare not as commodities but as the most basic of all human rights. They believe that free and universal access to education and healthcare is intimately linked to human dignity and social harmony. Since the victory of the Cuban revolution in 1959 Cuban society has been developed and geared towards the provision of these rights. Cuba now has, undoubtedly, one of the best healthcare systems in the world, all Cubans have access to free healthcare. Cuba is ranked 2nd in the world with 5.6 doctors per 1000 people. This is in sharp contrast to the US and UK who rank 52nd and 55th, with only 2.2 and 2.3 per 1000 people.
What’s more is that Cuban achievement in healthcare has not been confined to its own people but has made a huge global impact. Only two years after the success of the Revolution Cuba was allowing patients from the 3rd World to come to Cuba for free, high quality treatment. As its domestic health services grew it started sending volunteer healthcare workers abroad. By 1967 Cuban trainee doctors where required to work overseas for at least a year in order to complete their training.Eventually Cuba set up medical brigades which travelled across the world to health trouble spots. These brigades not only treat sick people but also train local people in hygiene and basic healthcare and construct clinics. When the earthquake hit Haiti the Cubans already had a medical brigade in the region which included 575 doctors and medical workers. Similar brigades currently serve in Paraguay, Mexico, Venezuela and Cambodia.
In 1999 Cuba established the Latin America School of Medical Sciences (now the Americas School of Medicine) this school allows students from across the world, unable to afford to afford medical school in their own country to, study in Cuba and become fully qualified doctors. The only condition attached is that they return to their own countries and establish community and health programmes among their own poor. By 2006 there were 10, 000 such students at the school from 29 countries. In 2007 eight US students were among those graduating and like the others, are contractually obliged to go home and practice medicine among the economically disadvantaged. All foreign students are on a full scholarship, including broad and lodgings.
How have the Cubans managed all this? They are a 3rd world country whose economic growth has been severely hindered by a continuing economic blockade imposed by the US 49 years ago. Yet they have achieved all the above in spite of the blockade and losing their main economic partner when the Soviet Union collapsed. Part of the answer can be seen in how Cuba manages the meagre resources and wealth that it has. The most common way to measure a country’s economy is by looking at its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Cuba ranks 93rd in the world in terms of its GDP. However if you look at its Human Development index (HDI), which is used to measure human well being in society, Cuba is ranked at 50. What does this mean? Essentially it means that Cuba has a more equal society, that it uses what little resources it has to improve the well being of all its citizens. It means that Cuba is spreading its wealth farther when compared to nations such as the US and UK who rank higher in GDP and lower in HDI, meaning they are not using as much of their wealth to benefit human well being as they could be.
So what is the difference between Cuba and the world’s leading nations? Why do they choose to spend more of the country’s wealth on human well being? The Cuban economy unlike the UK and US is not based on competition, put simply it is a not-for-profit society. They judge wealth not in terms of how many people are materially rich but in terms of how equal society is, are people well educated? Are they healthy? Do they have job security, housing and take an active role in the community? The Cubans believe that in order to create a more equal society they should invest their resources and wealth into increasing the well being of the whole society – not to create profit for individuals or big corporations. It is this approach to the economy that has allowed the Cuban health and education system to flourish. If the Cubans can achieve this on the little resources they have and in the face of a US economic blockade – imagine the changes in society that the world’s wealthiest nations could achieve if they took the same approach on how they distribute the resources in society, if they put human well being ahead of creating profits for the private sector?
So, why do we not see Cuba’s example of equality, healthcare and education promoted in our media as something to strive towards? One answer is the continued aggression of the US towards Cuba. The Bush Administration designated Cuba as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’, and US vilification and attacks on Cuba continue with removal of the blockade under Obama seeming as unlikely as ever. How can Cuba be described as evil, surely it is only an insignificant and poor third world country whose population and economy cannot threaten anyone. The real threat posed by Cuba is that is]t challenges the domination and rationale of the capitalist values of competition and individualism. Global neo-liberalism demands free trade and unregulated markets to create more profit and more wealth for a few. Neo-liberal economies are based on competition and in any competition there are winners and losers. Because of this neo-liberalism cannot provide an equal society. It cannot achieve world peace, cannot end world hunger, cannot provide real and lasting solutions to economic crisis and cannot solve environmental degradation. It considers healthcare as something to be bought and sold, all across the world healthcare is being privatized and we are being told that this is the only option. Workers everywhere are subject to unregulated markets, meaning there is no job security, no matter if you work in a call centre in Derry or a factory in the US, your job can be moved at the drop of a hat to another part of the world. We are told by government and the media that this is the way things are, that’s the way the world works and we should just accept it. And it is here that Cuba poses the real danger.
Cuba presents a practical and tangible alternative; it shows another approach to providing health care, one which views it as a right and a means to human dignity not a commodity with which to create unshared profit. It is backed up by a different approach to running an economy, one which strives to provide wealth on a ‘for all’ basis not for a few. Poverty exists in Cuba, but Cuban society does not accept it as inevitable, it does not lay the blame on the weakest in society by suggesting that they are lazy or selfish, and it actively seeks to solve the problems it faces, by encouraging collective values and responsibility rather than individualism and consumerism, and by sharing the wealth it has. Given the poor state of our own healthcare system, should we not be looking to the successes of Cuba? In the face of continued economic crisis should we not be considering a different approach to how we run our economy and share our resources? It is important for all workers especially young workers who will be left to deal with the economic mess created over recent decades to look far and wide for alternatives and solutions. It is crucial that we hold the Cuban experience up to as many people as we can. The Cuban Solidarity Campaign is an excellent vehicle for doing this and has a fine history of standing side by side with the Cuban people. We should lobby our elected representatives to follow policies that help to foster better relations and reject the aggressive stance taken by the US.
For more information please visit the Cuban Solidarity campaign at: http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/