Cuban International Giving: The Tradition of Foreign Medical Aid in Revolutionary Cuba

sduncan post on February 22nd, 2016
Posted in Central America

By Alex Holton

After the Cuban revolution in 1959, the newly established socialist government identified free
universal health care as a basic human right and responsibility of the state. The Cuban revolution has
always had an international perspective and the use of medical aid has become a way of exporting this
ideal and revolutionary politics to the developing world (Feinsilver, 2008). Although these missions
are undoubtedly politically motivated, and in some cases vehicles for economic gain, postrevolutionary
Cuba has consistently made international medical aid part of its character and in doing so
has incorporated it into its tradition of giving.

In Haiti, Cuba has been praised for its roll in helping to contain the Cholera epidemic that
emerged in the wake of the devastating earthquake of 2010. Cuba was in a unique position to provide
aid after the quake because of a preexisting contingent already on the ground, which had been
providing aid since a hurricane in 1998. As of November 2011, the Cuban mission had treated 76,000
cases of the disease (Archibold, 2011). Another poignant example is Operacion Milagro or Operation
Miracle, a program established in 2004, that by 2009 had helped restore vision to 1.6 million people in
Latin America through a variety of surgical procedures, free of cost (Voss, 2009)

These missions are definitely not without their political aims. For example, a 2005 agreement
with Venezuela assigned 30,000 Cuban doctors and included a promise to train 50,000 Venezuelan
physicians in exchange for 53,000 barrels of oil per day (Feinsilver, 2008). That being said, disaster
relief missions like the one in Haiti and “operation miracle” are conducted without cost to the recipient
nation. Castro reiterated the importance of foreign medical aid in a 2005 speech: “Not once,
throughout the selfless history of the Revolution, have our people failed to offer its supportive medical
assistance to other nations in need of this aid at times when catastrophes have hit them, regardless of
wide ideological and political differences…” (Castro, 2005)

An argument could also be made that these missions are little more than political propaganda.
For Example, the Cuban Government’s offer after hurricane Katrina, to send 1,500 doctors to New
Orleans, could easily be framed as political theater (Archibold, 2007). Furthermore, the frequency of
these missions in Latin America and Africa can be seen as a method of cementing relationships in a
political climate that is often hostile to the island nation (Feinsilver, 2008). However, regardless of
political gain these services are sorely needed. During a 2009 meeting in Havana, Honduran Foreign
Minister Patricia Rodas commented on the characterization of Cuban aid as ‘medical diplomacy’ by
saying, “If offering a helping hand is an extension of foreign policy, then (it is) welcome. I wish other
countries would do the same” (Voss, 2009).

Although in it’s earliest forms, Cuban medical aid came in conjunction with military support, as
with the Algerian Independence struggle in 1963, more recently medical aid has been tied to good will
and disaster relief (Voss, 2009). This commitment is reinforced through the establishment of
organizations within Cuba like the Henry Reeve Medical Brigade, an organization committed to natural
disaster relief world-wide (Archibold, 2007). Throughout its existence, post-revolutionary Cuba has
made foreign medical aid a national priority and established it as a pivotal part of its character. In
doing this, regardless of political aims, the nation has established international medical aid as part of its
tradition of giving.

Works Cited

Archibold, Randal C. (2007). “Cuba Takes Lead Roll in Haiti’s Cholera Fight”, New York Times Times. Accessed online
January 29th 2012

Castro, Fidel. (Sept 19, 2005).”Speech at the foundation ceremony of the ‘Henry Reeve’ International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics, and the national graduation of students of Medical Sciences,” Accessed online January 29th 2012.

Feinsilver, Julie M. (2008) “Oil-for-Doctors: Cuban Medical Diplomacy Gets a Little Help From a Venezuelan Friend”,
Nueva Sociedad # 216. Accessed online January 29th 2012

Voss, Michael. (2009) “Cuba Pushes its ‘Medical Diplomacy” BBC, Accessed Online January 29th 2012.

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