Dr. Mirta Roses, PAHO Director, talks with Cuban medical personnel at the La Paz University Hospital, Port-au-Prince.
By Gail Reed, M.S., International Director, MEDICC
Nearly 1,000 Cuban and Cuban-trained Haitian doctorsÃ¢â‚¬â€already the largest contingent of medical relief workers in Haiti since the January 12th earthquakeÃ¢â‚¬â€are being joined by graduates of CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Latin American Medical School (ELAM) from the Americas and Africa. Among the first to arrive will be seven US physiciansÃ¢â‚¬â€all young women--who studied at ELAM and are on their way to Haiti today. At least a dozen countriesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ ELAM graduates are expected to begin working with the Cuban doctors, nurses, and support staff before monthÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s end.
Of the 938 health care providers in the Cuban-led teams on the ground thus far, 280 are young Haitian doctors, and at least 60 more are Haitian medical students enrolled at the school. Over the next few weeks, they will receive reinforcements of their peers in a number of Latin American, African and Caribbean countries.
Like the Cubans, they are planning to stay in Haiti to rebuild the public health system: Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re working to provide comprehensive care over the long term,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Dr. Carlos Alberto Garcia, one of the teamsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ coordinators. He noted that the immediate need for surgeries for fractures and polytraumas has now given way to rehabilitation efforts, treatment of people with diarrhea and respiratory infections, and campaigns to prevent serious disease outbreaks in the aftermath of the quake.
The Henry Reeve Emergency Medical ContingentÃ¢â‚¬â€as the Cuban-led teams are known, named after a US veteran of CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s independence war against SpainÃ¢â‚¬â€is now working in three hospitals, four field hospitals, five Comprehensive Diagnostic Centers (clinics) and numerous open-air sites in Port-au-Prince and throughout Haiti. The latest field hospital was opened January 26 in Croix des Bouquets on the outskirts of the capital.
In addition, the contingent will open its ninth rehabilitation center this week in Port-au-Prince, staffed by nearly 70 Cuban physical therapists and rehab specialists, in addition to the Haitian medical personnel. Another 64 Cuban epidemiologists and nurses are working in teams with the Haitian medical students to provide health education, vector control and vaccinations in some 40 makeshift settlements around Port-au-Prince.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Post-quake epidemics are a real concern of course,Ã¢â‚¬Â noted Dr. Garcia, reporting that the teams have thus far vaccinated some 20,000 Haitians and international volunteers with 400,000 tetanus vaccines donated by Cuba and additional vaccines donated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) against whooping cough, rubella, measles and diphtheria.
The Cuban-led contingent in numbers, through February 1, 2010:
Health professionals: 938
Of those, Haitian ELAM grads: 280
Persons treated: 50,000
Complex surgeries: 1.500
Births: 280 (including 183 C-sections)
For continuous updates, see www.medicc.org.
Havana, Feb. 19, 2008 -- It was 6:00am on July 1, 2006, when we stretched, and finally descended the steps from Fidel Castro's offices in Revolution Square. As it turned out, on that steamy July morning we would be the last US guests received by Fidel Castro before he took critically ill a few weeks later.
We were a group of US health professionals, and he'd given us the whole night, speaking with passion about cochlear implants for deaf-and-blind Cuban children, the devastating health picture in Africa, Cuba's scaling up of medical training for the world (100,000 over the next decade), and the urgent need for planet-wide energy savings. He asked one of his aides for an update on the hospital being built by indigenous Garifuna MDs in Honduras, graduates of Havana's Latin American Medical School. At 3:00am, he made a call to the Cuban medical team in East Timor to see if their supplies had arrived.
About 4:00am, he discovered we hadn't eaten anything since the evening before, to which we replied that he apparently had not even had dinner. So, he ordered up a glass of cold ruby-red sorrel tea and his "tsunami", a five-grain cereal he was eating for his already chronic digestive problems. To our great chagrin and his great amusement, he passed around spoons so we could try the stuff. Then we also tried various flavors of Cuban soy yogurt, and the same hot chocolate sold to Cubans at corner grocery stores.
At one point, he suddenly turned to the pediatrician in our group: "Are you the same doctor now you were the day you graduated?". The physician took the question as a barb at old age, and jested that "sure, I'm just a little greyer". But it turned out that the Cuban President was quite serious. "I've been a politician for over 40 years," he said, giving our doctor that piercing Fidel Castro eye, "and I'm just beginning to learn something about politics."
One of our group took her cue to ask his advice for a good friend, an African-American woman who had just been elected by her district on a social justice platform. What would Castro say?
"I think you've given me pause," he opened. And that was rare enough.
"Remember that politics is an art, not a science," he ruminated. "So I would say a few things, and they would be the following:
Ã¯â€šÂ§ Defend your values and ideas now just as fervently as when you were young. Without passion, there's no reason for living.
Ã¯â€šÂ§ Our biggest problem today is to see if we can survive as a human race, if we know how to care for ourselves and the planet. This has to be on every politician's mind.
Ã¯â€šÂ§ Life is a struggle against yourself, especially if you have a little bit of power. The challenge is to remember the words of Jose Marti (Cuba's national hero): Ã¢â‚¬ËœAll the glory in the world fits in a single kernel of corn.'
Today's announcement of Fidel Castro's resignation brought back my memory and my notes from that marathon all-nighter. Rarely you find a politician who takes his own advice: Fidel Castro has proven once again that he may be one-of-a-kind.
And that politics is indeed an art.
(Havana) -- Sometimes you just have to lighten up this US-Cuba thing. And for me, Saturday's Granma newspaper did the trick. The official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba carried in its cultural pages a review of an interesting interactive debate among Latin American, US and European intellectuals about the commercialization of culture, and the imperial reign of US cultural values and their "thingamatization" of just about every Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthing'. The Cuban Minister of Culture was among the more eloquent. All true, I thought, especially when it comes to the US megaindustries of movies, music and consumer festishism in general.
Then my eyes panned down to the weekend's TV guide. Cuba has four national TV networks, all government-owned, but serving up different programming profiles from news, sports and drama, to comedy and soaps, and even lessons in French and geography. But come the weekend, they all scramble to please a viewer passion second only to baseball: the movies, the more action the better. And on this weekend in Havana, Cuban television carried no less than 17 Hollywood films (out of 21 total) -- including a couple of premieres which I couldn't figure out from the translated titles, plus re-runs of Die Hard 4, Return of the Jedi, Gigli, and The World According to Garp. In fact, Die Hard 4 was listed in the coveted nightowl spot reserved for the film most in demand over the week.
Havana's Hollywood weekend went on to sport at least three children's films, Disney cartoons, and episodes of The X Files, Law & Order, and CSI. We get Dr. House another day, and for years have been treated to Murder She Wrote, Degrassi Junior High and other US TV favorites. And these are the best of the lot -- some Saturday nights, there's not a recognizable name in the credits of the worst US flicks in the business, direct-to-video, made-for-TV, all beaming their way into homes from Pinar del Rio to Bayamo.
Now, I hope Cuban television doesn't get me wrong -- I'm the first one to want to hold on to my better hometown shows (especially Law & Order, please) -- but with such freewheeling, non-discriminating shoppers at the helm, I see us sliding down the slippery slope towards daytime soaps, sob-confessions, and do-or-die reality shows.
The more macho guys on my block are probably groaning at this critique, but believe me, even the most addicted Cuban households are beginning to clamor for better US TV. All the more because they know Cuba's government-run stations have decided for years that the US embargo removes any obligation they might have to pay licensing fees -- so they have a totally free hand to pick and choose, and swipe as they like.
But if they don't do a better job now, I shudder to think what will happen when the embargo is lifted, and the media moguls begin the hard sell (planning a fair share of revenues to their writers by then?).
On a related topic: In this culture war, I've always wondered why Cuba's burger joints (El Rapido's) are painted the same garrish yellow and red as McDonald's. Is it because they serve the same awful burgers? Copycat marketing? Both?
In conclusion, before there's even a whif of change in the air for US policy towards the island, my advice to Cubans -- on the shows, the hamburgers and the whole megillah --is the same my grandmother once gave me: never swallow anything whole.
-- Gail Reed
(All photos: Havana, 2005 by Marc PoKempner)
An astute pundit named Rufus Miles observed that 'where you stand depends on where you sit'. In last Friday's simpleton roast of Cuban health care on ABCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 20/20, the standers were mostly sitting in Miami, and the rest were sitting in Langley. (For the full dose see transcript or video ). In fact, the CIA turned out to be the only second opinion John Stossel sought for the whole story.
It was a sample of what I call Ã¢â‚¬Å“retro-reportingÃ¢â‚¬Â--a McCarthy era piece against voodoo communismÃ¢â‚¬â€no kidding, the video actually has sinister Soviet soldiers marching against a red-flagged Lenin backdrop. But the trouble is that itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supposed to be real 2007 journalism. On health care, no less.
Stossel goes on to accuse Ã¢â‚¬Å“communist regimesÃ¢â‚¬Â of hiding facts, yet itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Stossel who proves no facts of his own, content with phantom sources Ã¢â‚¬Å“doctors tell usÃ¢â‚¬Â, Ã¢â‚¬Å“a Venezuelan womanÃ¢â‚¬Â. Or else disgruntled Miami, with its 45-year baggage. He posts seamy photos from unabashedly biased sources, with no proof of where they were taken or when. In fact, no reporting for the story was ever done inside CubaÃ¢â‚¬â€just some B-roll showing healthy babies (sic?).
Not to mention the absence of Cuban health officials. In fact, Stossel portrays it as just another communist plot when the UN and World Health Organization publish statistics from Cuban health authorities. Are we supposed to take this seriously?
ABC NewsÃ¢â‚¬â€shame on you--gets away with it because of a fatal twist in US foreign policy: most Americans are banned from travel to Cuba by our own government. So we join the ranks of the vulnerable, and have no choice but to swallow Stossel whole.
God forbid that Michael MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s movie and its reference to Cuba might make us stop to think that we could and should have better health care in America. Stossel would prefer we keep on stepping, and when it comes to Cuba, be just scared enough to cross the street altogether.
Because health care in our country is in trouble.
Take a look at the state of Florida itself. It should make any human rights-loving Cuban-American turn their crosshairs around. This summer, the Health Council of South Florida released Miami-Dade CountyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 2007 Community Health Report Card: access to health care got a pretty scary Ã¢â‚¬Å“FÃ¢â‚¬Â. So did the rate of uninsured (28.6% total, more for Hispanics and blacks); as well as overweight/obese adults at 60.6% and babies born with low birth weights at 9%. (But the news was not all bad: lower death rates for strokes, hepatitis rates, and reduced domestic violence all got an Ã¢â‚¬Å“AÃ¢â‚¬Â.)
Access to health care is just where Cuba excels. Despite its poverty, as I pointed out in the Huffington Post recently, Cuba makes health care available to all its citizens,
scoring comparably with the U.S. on many health indicators at a fraction of the cost. In fact, a Gallup Poll conducted last December revealed that 96% of Cuban citizens said they had regular access to health care, no matter who they were or what their income. That's a pretty high score for any poll. And it was Gallup, not Fidel Castro.
Which brings me full circle to Stossel once again. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve spent nearly two decades in Cuba covering health care, and just as important, being a patient in regular Cuban hospitals and clinics.
So here are some facts you didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get from Stossel:
Ã¯â€šÂ§ Cuban health statistics are as good as it gets. One reason you can tell is because not all of them are glowing: maternal mortality is still a problem in Cuba, as is increased threat from diabetes. This and other data are publicly available. Moreover, organizations like the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), which maintain permanent offices in Havana and regularly send evaluation teams to Cuba, have issued positive reports after firsthand assessments from visits to provinces across the country.
Ã¯â€šÂ§ On Cuban hospitals and Ã¢â‚¬Å“elitesÃ¢â‚¬Â: Sure, Cuban hospitals are dilapidated, and after the economic nosedive of the 90s, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re just now getting the repairs and remodeling they need. Yes, Michael MooreÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 911 responders went to one of the already-refurbished facilitiesÃ¢â‚¬â€but itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the hospital that also serves 156,000 people living in one of HavanaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s most overcrowded neighborhoods, not a hospital built for government elites.
Ã¯â€šÂ§ On the claim that Cuban women are subjected to Ã¢â‚¬Å“a widespread practice
of forced abortions when there might be indications of problems with the fetusÃ¢â‚¬Â (ABCÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s website summary):
This is patently false. By law in Cuba, abortion is accessible and free. However, for years, abortion rates have been going down in Cuba, not up. When congenital malformations occur during pregnancy, women are informed of the situation and their options in order to make a personal decision. At the same time, entire facilities like the ChildrenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Heart Center in Havana and a national network of special schools are dedicated to children who are born with congenital problems.
Ã¯â€šÂ§ In this context, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more than ironic that ABC has never reported on the US embargo on Cuba that prevents the Heart Center from directly purchasing a medication vital to keeping blue babies aliveÃ¢â‚¬â€blue babies who had problems in the womb, but who were born and treated thanks to the Center.
The bottom line is: as we look for serious reform to reshape our own health care, it would do us good if ABC took off the Cold War blinders, and instead made an honest attempt to draw lessons from experiences in Cuba and elsewhere. And in so doing, 20-20 producers might have brought us another story: just a few weeks ago, YM Biosciences-USA received a license from the Treasury Department to test a Cuban cancer vaccine in American children victimized by inoperable brain cancer. But then again, what a network chooses not to cover says volumes.
-- Gail Reed