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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is the US Following Cuba’s Example?

By Circles Robinson

On Monday, April 9, The Los Angeles Times ran a report entitled “Catching up in medical diplomacy.” The article featured Jason Vogt, a US dentist on a three week mission in Panama.

According to the newspaper, “Jason was part of a 350-strong U.S. military task force called New Horizons that last month spent two weeks bivouacked in the remote jungle of Bocas del Toro, Panama, helping the poor and buffing the image of the United States.”

Meanwhile, a doctor named Jose from Baracoa, Cuba, has been working for more than three years in Venezuela. No newspaper headlines celebrate his dedication, but he is one among tens of thousands of Cuban physicians and teachers working abroad.

Cuba has maintained a program of medical assistance in African and Latin American nations begun over four decades ago. Currently more than 20,000 doctors are on one to four year missions in Venezuela, Honduras, South Africa, Guatemala, Angola, Gambia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Algeria, Ghana, Haiti, and a host of other nations.

The Times article continues: “[Jason is] helping Uncle Sam score points in a high-stakes goodwill campaign playing out across Latin America in poor towns like this one [Norteno, Panama]. The objective: challenging the socialist campaigns of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and winning over people.”

On the one hand, it’s good to know that Washington has noticed that its free market policies have left many without even the most basic services. Certainly, any attempt by the US to rectify years of neglect in Latin America, should be well received. However, the scope of the occasional US medical assistance to the poor in Latin America can not be compared with the ongoing large-scale Cuban effort in the region.

One fundamental difference between the brief US humanitarian voyages and the comprehensive Cuban effort is that the Cuban physicians live for years in remote communities. There, they not only treat existing ailments but also stress a host of preventive public health measures including appropriate sanitation and water use, and pre-and-post natal care among others.

When cataracts or other eye diseases are detected, operations are provided either in a host country clinic, often built and staffed with Cuban assistance, or via flights to Cuba or Venezuela. Since 2004, several hundred thousand people from Latin America and the Caribbean have recovered their vision.

The US medical personnel will also perform some eye operations and distribute glasses during their brief goodwill missions.


The L.A. Times report notes that “the US will underwrite a four million dollar regional medical training center in Panama City and that Americans will help staff the center.”

Such an effort should be welcomed as a modest attempt to do what Cuba does on a large scale: provide full scholarships to low-income Latin Americans to study medicine on the island, a program that graduated 2,910 doctors in 2005 and 2006.

Currently over 10,000 students from low-income families in 29 countries are studying at the Havana-based Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM). In the year 2000, Cuba also extended the scholarship offer to include students from the United States. Currently, around 90 are at the med school.

However, graduating doctors is not enough to guarantee assistance to the millions of Latin Americans without health care, the target group of the long-term Cuban project.

So, besides teaching medicine, the Cuban program seeks to instill a commitment in the students to serve in their poor rural or urban communities upon returning home. It also encourages their local and national governments to provide a public health slot to facilitate their efforts.

The L.A. Times goes on to make the claim that the Cuban program is some how flawed because a small percentage of its doctors take up the Bush administration’s highly publicized brain drain proposition that makes any Cuban medical professional sent abroad eligible for immediate entrance and residence in the US.

However, just like the occasional boxing champ or baseball player that opts for the big bucks, Cuba has shown it is prepared to replace those doctors who swallow Washington’s hook in hope of a higher salary.


William Eaton, the US Ambassador to Panama said President Bush's recent trip to the region was evidence of the new emphasis Washington is placing on improving Latin American relations. Healthcare has become an important part of the U.S. "relations focus," said the L.A Times article.

If we give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt and applaud anything that stresses human well-being, there is another pending health calamity where Washington could lend a big hand.

In 2001, Cuba offered the United Nations 4,000 doctors to work year round in the African countries most affected by HIV/AIDS if the US, Europe and other developed nations would supply the anti-retroviral medicines, equipment and material resources need for prevention programs and treatment.

Year after year, the offer has been repeated, and year after year it has fallen on deaf ears. Be it to shore up an uncaring image or for humanitarian reasons, now would be the perfect time for the US to join Cuba and make a significant difference in so many people’s lives.


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