[News] Haiti - Cuba's aid ignored by the media?

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Feb 15 11:10:07 EST 2010

Cuba's aid ignored by the media?

  By Tom Fawthrop in Havana

After the quake struck, Haiti's first medical aid came from Cuba [GALLO/GETTY]

Among the many donor nations helping Haiti, Cuba 
and its medical teams have played a major role in treating earthquake victims.

Public health experts say the Cubans were the 
first to set up medical facilities among the 
debris and to revamp hospitals immediately after the earthquake struck.

However, their pivotal work in the health sector 
has received scant media coverage.

"It is striking that there has been virtually no 
mention in the media of the fact that Cuba had 
several hundred health personnel on the ground 
before any other country," said David Sanders, a 
professor of public health from Western Cape University in South Africa.

The Cuban team coordinator in Haiti, Dr Carlos 
Alberto Garcia, says the Cuban doctors, nurses 
and other health personnel have been working 
non-stop, day and night, with operating rooms open 18 hours a day.

During a visit to La Paz hospital in the Haitian 
capital Port-au-Prince, Dr Mirta Roses, the 
director of the Pan American Health Organisation 
(PAHO) which is in charge of medical coordination 
between the Cuban doctors, the International 
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a host of 
health sector NGOs, described the aid provided by 
Cuban doctors as "excellent and marvellous".

La Paz is one of five hospitals in Haiti that is 
largely staffed by health professionals from Havana.

History of cooperation

Global medical teams raced to provide urgent aid 
to Haiti after the earthquake [GETTY]
Haiti and Cuba signed a medical cooperation agreement in 1998.

Before the earthquake struck, 344 Cuban health 
professionals were already present in Haiti, 
providing primary care and obstetrical services 
as well as operating to restore the sight of Haitians blinded by eye diseases.

More doctors were flown in shortly after the 
earthquake, as part of the rapid response Henry 
Reeve Medical Brigade of disaster specialists. 
The brigade has extensive experience in dealing 
with the aftermath of earthquakes, having 
responded to such disasters in China, Indonesia and Pakistan.

"In the case of Cuban doctors, they are rapid 
responders to disasters, because disaster 
management is an integral part of their 
training," explains Maria a Hamlin Zúniga, a 
public health specialist from Nicaragua.

"They are fully aware of the need to reduce risks 
by having people prepared to act in any disaster situation."

Cuban doctors have been organising medical 
facilities in three revamped and five field 
hospitals, five diagnostic centres, with a total 
of 22 different care posts aided by financial 
support from Venezuela. They are also operating 
nine rehabilitation centres staffed by nearly 70 
Cuban physical therapists and rehab specialists, 
in addition to the Haitian medical personnel.

The Cuban team has been assisted by 100 
specialists from Venezuela, Chile, Spain, Mexico, 
Colombia and Canada and 17 nuns.

Havana has also sent 400,000 tetanus vaccines for the wounded.

Eduardo Nuñez Valdes, a Cuban epidemiologist who 
is currently in Port-au-Prince, has stressed that 
the current unsanitary conditions could lead to 
an epidemic of parasitic and infectious diseases if not acted upon quickly.

Media silence

However, in reporting on the international aid 
effort, Western media have generally not ranked 
Cuba high on the list of donor nations.

One major international news agency's list of 
donor nations credited Cuba with sending over 30 
doctors to Haiti, whereas the real figure stands 
at more than 350, including 280 young Haitian 
doctors who graduated from Cuba. The final figure 
accounts for a combined total of 930 health 
professionals in all Cuban medical teams making 
it the largest medical contingent on the ground.

Another batch if 200 Cuban-trained doctors from 
24 countries in Africa and Latin American, and a 
dozen American doctors who graduated from Havana 
are currently en route to Haiti and will provide 
reinforcement to existing Cuban medical teams.

By comparison the internationally-renowned 
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without 
Borders) has approximately 269 health 
professionals working in Haiti. MSF is much 
better funded and has far more extensive medical supplies than the Cuban team.

Left out

But while representatives from MSF and the ICRC 
are frequently in front of television cameras 
discussing health priorities and medical needs, 
the Cuban medical teams are missing in the media coverage.

Richard Gott, the Guardian newspaper's former 
foreign editor and a Latin America specialist, 
explains: "Western media are programmed to be 
indifferent to aid that comes from unexpected 
places. In the Haitian case, the media have 
ignored not just the Cuban contribution, but also 
the efforts made by other Latin American countries."

Brazil is providing $70mn in funding for 10 
urgent care units, 50 mobile units for emergency 
care, a laboratory and a hospital, among other health services.

Venezuela has cancelled all Haiti debt and has 
promised to supply oil free of charge until the 
country has recovered from the disaster.

Western NGOs employ media officers to ensure that 
the world knows what they are doing.

According to Gott, the Western media has grown 
accustomed to dealing with such NGOs, enabling a 
relationship of mutual assistance to develop.

Cuban medical teams, however, are outside this 
predominantly Western humanitarian-media loop and 
are therefore only likely to receive attention 
from Latin American media and Spanish language broadcasters and print media.

There have, however, been notable exceptions to 
this reporting syndrome. On January 19, a CNN 
reporter broke the silence on the Cuban role in 
Haiti with a report on Cuban doctors at La Paz hospital.

Cuba/US cooperation

When the US requested that their military plans 
be allowed to fly through Cuban airspace for the 
purpose of evacuating Haitians to hospitals in 
Florida, Cuba immediately agreed despite almost 
50 years of animosity between the two countries.

Cuban doctors received global praise for their 
humanitarian aid in Indonesia [Tom Fawthrop]
Josefina Vidal, the director of the Cuban foreign 
ministry's North America department, issued a 
statement declaring that: "Cuba is ready to 
cooperate with all the nations on the ground, 
including the US, to help the Haitian people and save more lives."

This deal cut the flight time of medical 
evacuation flights from the US naval base at 
Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's southern tip to Miami by 90 minutes.

According to Darby Holladay, the US state 
department's spokesperson, the US has also 
communicated its readiness to make medical relief 
supplies available to Cuban doctors in Haiti.

"Potential US-Cuban cooperation could go a long 
way toward meeting Haiti's needs," says Dr Julie 
Feinsilver, the author of Healing the Masses - a 
book about Cuban health diplomacy, who argues 
that maximum cooperation is urgently needed.

Rich in human resources

Although Cuba is a poor developing country, their 
wealth of human resources - doctors, engineers 
and disaster management experts - has enabled 
this small Caribbean nation to play a global role 
in health care and humanitarian aid alongside the 
far richer nations of the west.

Cuban medical teams played a key role in the wake 
of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and provided the 
largest contingent of doctors after the 2005 
Pakistan earthquake. They also stayed the longest 
among international medical teams treating the 
victims of the 2006 Indonesian earthquake.

In the Pakistan relief operation the US and 
Europe dispatched medical teams. Each had a base 
camp with most doctors deployed for a month. The 
Cubans, however, deployed seven major base camps, 
operated 32 field hospitals and stayed for six months.

Bruno Rodriguez, who is now Cuba's foreign 
minister, headed the mission - living in the 
mountains of Pakistan for more than six months.

Just after the Indonesian earthquake a year 
later, I met with Indonesia's then regional 
health co-coordinator, Dr Ronny Rockito.

Cuba had sent 135 health workers and two field 
hospitals. Rockito said that while the medical 
teams from other countries departed after just 
one month, he asked the Cuban medical team to extend their stay.

"I appreciate the Cuban medical team. Their style 
is very friendly. Their medical standard is very high," he told me.

"The Cuban [field] hospitals are fully complete 
and it's free, with no financial support from our government."

Rockito says he never expected to see Cuban 
doctors coming to his country's rescue.

"We felt very surprised about doctors coming from 
a poor country, a country so far away that we know little about.

"We can learn from the Cuban health system. They 
are very fast to handle injuries and fractures. 
They x-ray, then they operate straight away."

A 'new dawn'?

The Montreal summit, the first gathering of 20 
donor nations, agreed to hold a major conference 
on Haiti's future at the United Nations in March.

Some analysts see Haiti's rehabilitation as a 
potential opportunity for the US and Cuba to 
bypass their ideological differences and combine 
their resources - the US has the logistics while 
Cuba has the human resources - to help Haiti.

Feinsilver is convinced that "Cuba should be 
given a seat at the table with all other nations 
and multilateral organisations and agencies in 
any and all meetings to discuss, plan and 
coordinate aid efforts for Haiti's reconstruction".

"This would be in recognition of Cuba's 
long-standing policy and practise of medical 
diplomacy, as well as its general development aid to Haiti," she says.

But, will Haiti offer the US administration, 
which has Cuba on its list of nations that 
allegedly "support terrorism", a "new dawn" in its relations with Cuba?

In late January, Hillary Clinton, the US 
secretary of state, thanked Cuba for its efforts 
in Haiti and welcomed further assistance and co-operation.

In Haiti's grand reconstruction plan, Feinsilver 
argues, "there can be no imposition of systems 
from any country, agency or institution. The 
Haitian people themselves, through what remains 
of their government and NGOs, must provide the 
policy direction, and Cuba has been and should 
continue to be a key player in the health sector in Haiti".

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