60 years of medical solidarity: The invaluable legacy of Cuban international health collaboration
23 May, 2023 by
60 years of medical solidarity: The invaluable legacy of Cuban international health collaboration
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Throughout its history, Cuba has demonstrated unwavering solidarity with other nations of the world, a solidarity embedded in the Latin Americanist ideals of José Martí, Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Fidel Castro Ruz since the beginnings of the revolutionary triumph. The continuity of these ideas throughout the years of revolution has been the expression of the internationalist principle of the Cuban people in various forms and ways. And among them, the Cuban international medical collaboration, which today celebrates its 60th anniversary, stands out.

The Cuban Revolution did not wait until it had achieved economic development and political consolidation to begin providing assistance in the field of health. As early as 1960, an emergency medical brigade and several tons of equipment and supplies were sent to Chile after a devastating earthquake that claimed thousands of lives. [i]. Salvador Allende, then a senator of that country, who accompanied that brigade, expressed, "I saw the trucks passing through the streets of Havana and saw the anonymous generosity of those who delivered what was needed, something much more valuable than what rich countries offer."[ii]

On October 17, 1962, during the inauguration ceremony of the "Victoria de Girón" Institute of Basic and Preclinical Sciences, Fidel announced to the Cuban people the government's decision to provide assistance in the field of health, stating: "... and that is why we, talking to the students today, were telling them that we need 50 volunteer doctors to go to Algeria, to go and help the Algerians. And we are sure that these volunteers will not be lacking. Fifty of them! We are sure that more will come forward, as an expression of the spirit of solidarity of our people with a friendly people who are worse off than we are. Of course, today we can send 50, in 8 or 10 years we don't know how many, and we will be able to help our brother peoples; because every year that passes we will have more doctors, and every year that passes more students will enter the School of Medicine; because the Revolution has the right to harvest what it sows and has the right to collect the fruits it has sown." [iii]

Thus, May 23, 1963 is considered the beginning of the Cuban International Medical Collaboration, with the dispatch of the first brigade to Algeria, composed of 55 collaborators who served for one year. [iv] This date marks the beginning of internationalism in health, of the international solidarity of the Cuban public health system and its profoundly humanistic ethical foundation.

Since then, more than 600,000 associates have helped in 165 nations over 60 years.[v] Our professionals have served in remote and hard-to-reach places where other professionals do not usually go. Many of them have had the privilege of being the first doctors in indigenous communities and communes, facing patients' fear before a stethoscope and sharing bed, food and medicine with them.

Throughout these six decades, it is worth mentioning distinctive moments and stages, such as the development of the Comprehensive Health Program, which involved sending Medical Brigades to remote and difficult-to-access places where there was no presence of local doctors. Special programs also deserve mention, being Barrio Adentro in Venezuela the most advanced and complete modality in terms of services provided within a country. Another outstanding program is "Operation Miracle," through which more than three million people in 34 countries recovered their vision or improved their eye health. [vi]

A transcendental event in the history of Cuban medical collaboration around the world is the creation of the International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics "Henry Reeve" on August 25, 2005, at the initiative of our Commander Fidel Castro Ruz.  [vii] This contingent was organized in response to the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina in the territories of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in the United States. It represents a new approach to Disaster Medicine, although since 1960 Cuba had already been providing aid in natural disaster situations through Emergency Brigades.

The doctors of the "Henry Reeve" contingent, named after the exceptional young American fighter who fought for Cuba's independence, are doctors of the world. They have left an indelible mark in Guatemala, Pakistan, Bolivia, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, China and many others.[viii] They were called "angels" in West Africa when they challenged Ebola.  [ix] More than five thousand of their members fought the COVID-19 pandemic in more than 40 countries, grouped in 57 brigades. [x] Just a few months ago, some thirty left for Turkey to bring hope and health to that sister country after the devastating earthquakes of February 6. [xi]

Nor can we fail to mention the creation of the faculties of medical sciences abroad and the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), one of the most humane and supportive ideas of the Revolution, which gives the opportunity to train as doctors to young people from the poorest places of all continents, and constitutes something unprecedented.  [xii]

For Cubans, solidarity is a national sentiment. As Fidel taught us, it represents "settling our own debt with humanity". That is why Cuban health collaborators make a modest contribution to the infinite aspiration to achieve universal health coverage, while contributing to the sustainability of multiple health programs and services in Cuba.  [xiii] They have always been there where they are needed, in places of difficult access and extreme poverty. In many of those corners, the Cuban doctor has been the first contact of entire communities with a health professional, providing care and security to the poorest and most destitute. And in each place, they have won the respect, admiration and gratitude of all, thanks to their high professionalism, sensitivity and humane treatment.

They are an army of hope for the world. Today, 60 years into the journey of #CubaporlaSalud, we send them a congratulatory message full of gratitude, with the certainty that wherever there is a Cuban medical collaborator, there is Cuba, fighting for life.

On this day, we remember the prophetic words of Fidel[xiv]: "Before you, this humanity will one day have to bow; before you, future generations will have to bow".

By: MSc. Dra. Patricia Alonso Galbán
Communication Specialist of  CSMC, S.A.

[i]de la Torre E, Márquez M, Rojas Ochoa F, Gutiérrez Muñiz JA, López Pardo C. Salud para todos Si es posible. La Habana: Sociedad Cubana de Salud Pública, Sección de Medicina Social; 2005.

[ii] Delgado García G. Temas y personalidades de la historia de la medicina cubana. Cuad Hist Salud Púb. 1987(72).

[iv] Marimón Torres Nestor, Martínez Cruz Evelyn. Evolución de la colaboración médica cubana en 100 años del Ministerio de Salud Pública. Rev Cubana Salud Pública  [Internet]. 2010  Sep [citado  2023  Mayo  22] ;  36( 3 ): 254-262. Disponible en: http://scielo.sld.cu/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0864-34662010000300010&lng=es.

60 years of medical solidarity: The invaluable legacy of Cuban international health collaboration
CSMC, S.A 23 May, 2023
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