Cubas revolutionary doctors

Cuba this year graduated 1,905 new doctors. They pledged, in part, the following: “True medicine is not that which cures, but that which prevents, whether in an isolated community on our island or in any sister country of the world, where we will always be the standard bearers of solidarity and internationalism.”

Cuban doctors have long been putting that resolve into practice. On more than 10 occasions over three decades, Cuban medical teams gone to other Latin American nations to help out after earthquakes and disastrous hurricanes.

This year the Cuban doctors have had ample opportunity to practice international solidarity. And they were prepared. In September a group of 1,500 physicians had been organized to fly to Houston, Texas, to care for people injured or sick after Hurricane Katrina. Washington turned down the offer of assistance.

But the group has stayed together and now, three months later, it includes 3,000 volunteer physicians. They’ve all received special training in the care of people victimized by natural disasters or epidemics. They have a name: the Henry Reeve Brigade.

Born in Brooklyn, Henry Reeve fought in the U.S. Civil War and went to Cuba in May 1869 to join the rebel side fighting for independence from Spain. He fought in 400 battles and died in combat.

The first 1,500 physician members of the brigade averaged 32 years of age and 10 years of medical experience. They were 857women and 729 men, and 699 of them had already worked overseas, collectively in 43 countries. The first contingent included 1,100 family medicine doctors, plus surgeons, pediatricians, internists and epidemiologists. They speak two or more languages.

Cuba was ready when Hurricane Stan hit Central America in early October, killing 670 persons in Guatemala and leaving 844 missing persons, plus 32,807 homes destroyed. Agricultural losses totaled $400 million. On Oct. 8, an earthquake killed an estimated 73,000 people in Pakistan, where 3 million were left homeless, 1 million displaced, and 70,000 seriously injured.

Six hundred Brigade members went to Guatemala to care for victims of Hurricane Stan. They provide emergency health care, also specialty care, heath education and prevention. Altogether they have contacted or cared for 144,816 people. The Brigade brought tons of medical supplies with them to Guatemala, where they joined 200 Cuban doctors already there on permanent assignment.

Cuba has sent 900 Brigade doctors to earthquake ravaged Pakistan. They brought 250 tons of medical supplies and medicines with them and are working in 17 tent hospitals, with 13 more being prepared.

The Cuban doctors do this as part of Cuba’s “battle of ideas.” Deputy Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez illustrated what that means. He had been in Pakistan for three weeks and on Nov. 19 was speaking in Islamabad at a conference of international donors. He highlighted the contrast, drew the battle lines, between the example of the Cuban doctors and the priorities of rich nations.

“On behalf of the heroic and modest Cuban doctors who are carrying out a truly humanitarian feat and from the deepest pole of my experience obtained during three weeks, I issue this urgent call.” Rodriguez spoke out in support of a UN request for $5.2 billion to keep its relief effort going. This shortfall, he pointed out, was occurring in a world that spends $1 trillion each year on weapons, $1 trillion for advertising, $400 billion for illegal drugs, $105 billion for alcohol, $17 billion for pet food and $13 billion for perfume.

What impels the Cuban doctors to transform their graduation pledge of solidarity into the gritty reality of revolutionary internationalism? Victor Dreke, Cuba’s ambassador in Equatorial Guinea, suggested recently that it’s a matter of the heart. Speaking there at a book fair, he recalled his time in Africa with Che Guevera: “Here is Cuba’s modest contribution. Cuba’s experience is at your disposal. … No matter where in the world we find ourselves, we are always compañeros. I am part of Africa.”

Writer and political activist Tariq Ali came down to specifics. He had returned to his native Pakistan after the earthquake. “It’s not just a matter of numbers. It’s also one of sensitivity and dedication. … The gesture of the Cuban doctors will go down in the history of internationalism. Many of my compatriots have learned a new word for love: Cuba.”