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A real humanitarian intervention

Cuba's Doctors without Borders

by Derrick O'Keefe

Several years ago, between coup d'etats and U.S. occupations of Haiti, Fidel Castro called for a foreign invasion of Cuba's Caribbean neighbour, stating that "Haiti does not need invasions of soldiers, it needs an invasion of doctors, and Cuba is ready to give this aid." The first Cuban medical battalion was dispatched to Haiti after a 1998 agreement, and they have remained in the trenches, often in the most remote parts of the western hemisphere's poorest country, providing a compelling example of internationalism and an alternative to humanitarian interventions by 'smart' bombs and bayonets.

The March 6 Dallas Morning News reported, somewhat incredulously, that at the height of the violence that accompanied the overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, all but one of the hospitals and clinics in Port-au-Prince were closed, a makeshift emergency room operated entirely by Cuban doctors. Haitian hospitals closed, and Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups stopped providing services, citing the dangerous conditions.

The 535 Cuban medical volunteers in Haiti have been instrumental in supplementing a woefully inadequate health care system. It is estimated that over the last 5 years, Cuban doctors have treated over 5 million Haitians. And with 90 per cent of the country's mere 2000 doctors operating in the capital of Port-au-Prince, the Cubans have been providing the bulk of services in the rest of the country. Observers have indeed pointed to this Cuban intervention as one of the reasons for the zealous desire of some in Washington to oust Aristide, despite the populist's largely orthodox, neo-liberal economic policy since the Marines restored him in 1994. The Haitian president, after all, had the temerity to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1996. The regime change in Haiti is indeed related to the 40-plus year drive to isolate and eliminate the Cuban Revolution.

Haiti, though, is but one recipient of volunteer Cuban doctors, tens of thousands of whom have worked throughout the Third World over the past four decades. In 1998, the Cubans sent hundreds of volunteers to Central America to help in the wake of Hurricane Mitch's devastation. They also initiated the Latin American Medical School, which provides free education for thousands of students from throughout the Americas, including about 50 economically disadvantaged students from the United States. You might have seen the medical school in Oliver Stone's recently released Comandante , the unfortunate "documentary" with the nauseating camera-work and predictable, shallow questions. Castro and Stone make a brief visit to the facility, but all the film gives up is scenes of Fidel and the adoring crowd, and the self-indulgent director of JFK quizzing Castro about the lone gunman theory.

But Cuba's international 'doctor diplomacy' deserves serious attention and study. It offers a valuable example of an alternative form of humanitarian intervention, and an example of the human benefits of alternative forms of development. The U.S.-NATO military forays in the Balkans in the 1990s were sold to the international community as humanitarian interventions. This justification, nothing new in the history of empires, gained primacy in the period between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. But the humanitarian rationale remains important, particularly for intervening in countries where allegations of Al-Qaeda links are just too farfetched (i.e. even more farfetched than in Iraq), like in Haiti.

Even a cursory look at the humanitarian consequences of countless U.S. –and often U.N., one should add– interventions, from the millions killed and the children deformed by chemical warfare in Vietnam, to the ongoing, almost unreported, civilian casualties of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, puts the lie to the myth of the benevolent Empire. But the North also makes clear its disdain for the less powerful in less overt ways, through the austerity measures dictated by the great, humane cause of debt repayment, the grossly unfair terms of trade, and the steadily diminishing contributions towards foreign aid programs. In fact, when Cuba announced its medical cooperation with Haiti, it called, in vain, on the developed countries to kick in funding for a comprehensive plan to reduce infant mortality. It would require a complete rethinking of international relations to even approach a truly humanitarian foreign policy. And even that is somewhat utopian, given the realities of the developed capitalist countries' competition for markets and resources.

The internationalism of the Cuban doctors –and, in fact, of teachers and many other professionals and labourers on the island – can only be the product of a society that has made efforts to produce a different, more selfless type of human being. Che Guevara, the ubiquitous t-shirt icon, was a leader of the Cuban Revolution and one of the most vocal advocates of the necessity of transforming human beings as a prerequisite for building a just, socialist society. Guevara warned of the disasters to be found along the road of relying solely on bureaucratic mechanisms and material incentives to increase productivity, and he advocated the promotion of volunteer labour to develop consciousness and solidarity.

Indeed, blasphemous as it is in these reactionary times, the Cuban doctors offer us a glimpse of the potential of socialism. Despite decades of economic blockade, sabotage, terrorism, and development stifled by often-bureaucratic methods and economic-political isolation, Cuba –and the principled internationalism embodied by its volunteer doctors– deserves to be included in the list of positive alternatives to a world ruled by greed and military might.

 

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