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Well-kept secret

Cuban medical cooperation in Haiti

by Emily J. Kirk and John M. Kirk

Media coverage of Cuban medical cooperation following the disastrous earthquake in Haiti on January 12 was sparse indeed. International news reports usually described the Dominican Republic as being the first country to provide assistance, while Fox News sang the praises of U.S. relief efforts in a report entitled “U.S. Spearheads Global Response to Haiti Earthquake” – a common theme of its extensive coverage. Among CNN’s hundreds of reports, one focused on a Cuban doctor wearing a T-shirt with a large image of Che Guevara – and yet presented him as a “Spanish doctor.” By March 24, CNN had 601 reports on its news website regarding the earthquake in Haiti, of which only 18 (briefly) referenced Cuban assistance. Similarly, between them the New York Times and the Washington Post had 750 posts about the earthquake and relief efforts, but not a single one reported on Cuban support in any meaningful way.

In reality, however, Cuba’s medical role has been extremely important, and it started long before the earthquake.

Eleven years of cooperation

In September 1998, Haiti was stuck by Hurricane Georges. The hurricane caused 230 deaths, destroyed 80 per cent of the country’s crops and left 167,000 people homeless.1 Even though Cuba and Haiti had not had diplomatic relations in more than 36 years, Cuba immediately offered a multifaceted aid agreement, of which the most important element was medical cooperation.

Cuba took a two-pronged public health approach to help Haiti. First, it agreed to maintain hundreds of doctors in the country for as long as necessary, working wherever they were posted by the Haitian government. This was particularly significant as Haiti’s health care system was by far the worst in the Americas. The country had a life expectancy of only 54 years in 1990, with one out of every five adult deaths due to AIDS and 12.1 per cent of children dying from preventable intestinal infectious diseases.2

In addition, Cuba agreed to train Haitian doctors in Cuba, providing that they would later return and take the place of the Cuban doctors (a process of “brain gain” rather than “brain drain”). The students were selected from nontraditional backgrounds and were mainly poor. It was thought that because of their socioeconomic background, they would – unlike many Haitian doctors practising in the United States and Canada – return to work where they were needed. The first cohort of students began studying in May 1999 at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM).

By 2007 significant change had already been achieved throughout the country; Cuban medical personnel were estimated to be caring for 75 per cent of the population under care.3 Studies by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) indicated clear improvements in the health profile since this extensive Cuban medical cooperation began.

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About the Author

John Kirk
John M. Kirk is professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University. He has written several books on Cuba, including Cuban Medical Internationalism: Origins, Evolution, and Goals (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He is currently writing a book on the impact of the 40,000-strong Cuban medical presence in 81 countries. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Cuba-L Analysis.


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