Communist Care: Cuba's State-Led Humanitarianism

By Fayyaz, Zeina | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Communist Care: Cuba's State-Led Humanitarianism


Fayyaz, Zeina, Harvard International Review


When a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti in January 2010, students from the Latin American School of Medicine (LASM), Cuba's prize medical school, rushed to assist with the relief effort. Less than 24 hours after the earthquake caused untold human and properties damage to Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, the students were on the ground with fresh medical supplies, seeing patients and performing operations. This rapid and capable response to the Haitian earthquake is part of a recent trend of Cuba's offering international humanitarian aid through the form of medical students and professional doctors. This policy is a concerted, multifaceted effort by the Cuban government to refurbish Cuba's international image and to build political capital.

Cuba's response to the earthquake in Haiti was initiated on January 12, 2010 by the Internationalist Brigade of Solidarity with the Peoples, a group of LASM students representing at least 13 Latin American countries that formed in the wake of the disaster. The brigade wrote to Cuban President Raul Castro for permission to go to Haiti's aid, saying they felt "the moral duty, internationalist and in solidarity, of devoting ourselves entirely to the urgent needs of the Haitian population." Castro assented, and by March 12, 2010, the Brigade had attended to more than 200,000 patients in Haiti. In addition, some 400 Cuban doctors were already in Haiti at the time of the quake and so were on hand to start reopening hospitals and treating victims within hours.

The earthquake in Haiti was not the first foreign disaster to which Cuban-trained doctors and medical students responded rapidly. The Henry Reeve Brigade, named for Henry Reeve, a US doctor who fought in Cuba's war of independence, has responded to floods and hurricanes in Latin America since its founding in 2005; the group was one of the first medical teams on the scene of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. In a somewhat ironic episode, the Henry Reeve Brigade's first cohort of 1,500 doctors was assembled to aid the United States, which has embargoed Cuba since 1960, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, an offer to which the US government did not respond.

In establishing their reputation as fast, competent responders in recent foreign crises, Cuban-trained health professionals, and especially LASM, have bolstered Cuba's international reputation, constituting an important part of the Cuban government's international outreach and image control. The LASM student-volunteers are crucial to this effort because they serve a dual role, reflecting positively on both Cuban health services and Cuban medical education. Their service in Haiti and elsewhere has shown the world that Cuban medical colleges produce top-notch, internationalist, compassionate doctors, and when Cuban medical education looks good, so does the Cuban government. Following the 1959 revolution, President Fidel Castro nationalized the entire education system, banned privately owned institutions, and eliminated tuition fees so that all Cubans could attend school through the university level, making advanced education free and accessible to all residents. …

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