Health for Export: Cuba, Though Cash-Strapped, Provides Medical Training Even for Students from the US

By Fawthrop, Tom | New Statesman (1996), November 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Health for Export: Cuba, Though Cash-Strapped, Provides Medical Training Even for Students from the US


Fawthrop, Tom, New Statesman (1996)


In John Lennon Park in Havana, Cubans eagerly study the inscription from the song "Imagine" at the foot of his statue: "You may say I'm a dreamer,/ But I'm not the only one." Lennon has become a cultural icon in this city of dreams. But for some Cubans, the socialist dream has turned sour over four decades of a US-imposed trade embargo and Fidel Castro's grip on power. Nobody had ever imagined a "socialist heaven" based on the hell of an economic blockade.

Such contradictions are rife in Cuban society. A housing crisis, erratic transport and queues for nearly everything echo those of many threadbare third world economies. And yet Cuba is in a class apart. It may not have gold reserves and dollars, but it is wealthy in medical and educational achievements. The island has the best health system in Latin America--the envy of less-developed nations--and despite the daily struggle of many to put food on the table, life expectancy is similar to that in the UK. Cuba is one of the few developing countries to manufacture and supply its Aids patients with antiretroviral drugs, although the shortage of more basic medicines can be so acute that patients quip: "It is easier to get a kidney transplant in Cuba than a simple aspirin.

Despite being cash-strapped, Cuba is a major aid donor to other developing countries, sending more medical missions abroad than any other country. There are currently about 4,610 Cuban health workers providing humanitarian aid in 65 countries, surpassing even the efforts of Medecins Sans Frontieres.

When Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in October 1998, western governments responded with a short-term Band-Aid approach. But Castro declared that Cuba would provide assistance for the longer term. He argued that the countries that had been hit--Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua--must have their own doctors. A former naval college in Havana was renovated and converted into the new Latin American Medical School. The school's 7,000 foreign students take special courses in coping with epidemics, emergencies and natural disasters.

The offer of six years' free medical training has even been extended to would be doctors from the richest nation on earth. More than 50 US students are now studying medicine in a country that figures in Bush's "axis of evil"--a great embarrassment for the world's superpower. As long as these students are hosted by Cuba and don't spend any money in the country, the US Treasury is unable to prosecute them under the Trading With the Enemy Act, the legislation still used to punish American tourists who defy Washington s blockade.

Most US students are African Americans, such as 26-year-old Cordy Brown from Mississippi, who would have had very little chance of ever gaining admission to a medical school back home. …

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