The following is an excerpt from my latest for Al Jazeera.
In 1995, Nelson Mandela declared with regard to Cuban international solidarity missions to Africa over past decades:
Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonisers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment and apartheid.”
The US, of course, had offered a less favourable characterisation of Cuban activities on the African continent, and accused the island nation of exporting revolution. Evidence of diabolical Cuban meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations included its substantial assistance in defending newly independent Angola against a US-backed South African invasion that – according to Noam Chomsky – ultimately killed a million and a half people in Angola and Mozambique.
As for more subtly packaged revolutionary exports, the New York Times reported in 2009 that, “[i]n the 50 years since the revolution, Cuba has sent more than 185,000 health professionals on medical missions to at least 103 countries”.
While hysteria-prone sectors of the global population have determined that Cuban-inspired health care programmes in Venezuela are merely a front for terrorist training operations, the Times managed to limit itself to citing a Cuban medical presence of 31,000 in the South American country. It also referred to medical endeavours abroad as “a crowning achievement of Cuban foreign policy” – albeit one that was being “effectively… turned on its head” by the curiously titled Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme.
A joint initiative between the US Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, the parole programme for non-criminals encourages Cuban health care workers deployed internationally to defect to the US, thereby neutralising an apparent PR coup by the Castro regime.
Of course, even if we assume that Cuban medical deployments are nothing but a politically motivated ploy to secure international support via a facade of humane charitableness, it is not difficult to figure out which of the following two scenarios is objectively less harmful to humanity: a facade of humane charitableness that results in free health care for countless numbers of people across the globe who would not otherwise have access to it, or a facade of democracy promotion that has thus far resulted in over a million deaths in Iraq alone since 2003.
Indeed, as a Cuban doctor named Yamile remarked to me at a Barrio Adentro (“Inside the Neighborhood”) health clinic on Venezuela’s Margarita Island in 2009: “We also fight in war zones, but to save lives.”
Barrio Adentro, a collaborative effort between Cuba and the Hugo Chávez administration that began in 2003, is a nationwide system offering health care free of charge to all Venezuelans. According to Steve Brouwer’s bookRevolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care, it includes nearly 7000 walk-in offices and more than 500 larger diagnostic clinics.
The irony of the situation was not lost on the Cubans – that a national of the country presiding over the embargo that has historically prevented Cuban acquisition of medicines and equipment had now ended up the recipient of gratuitous ultrasounds courtesy of Cuba. In a more severe case of irony resulting from the unconditional dispensation of health care, it was revealed in 2007 that Cuban doctors in Bolivia had performed free cataract surgery on the man who killed Che Guevara.Visiting some of these during a month-long excursion to the country, I was pleased to discover that the system did not discriminate against imperial citizens from the north. Though there was nothing detectably wrong with me, the Cuban and Venezuelan Barrio Adentro personnel graciously accommodated my requests for ultrasounds of various parts of my body, and Yamile donated a free packet of mind-altering allergy pills to my traveling companion. The walls of the clinics were generally festooned with alarming political propaganda such as handmade calendars denoting the birthdays of staff members, Chávez and Fidel Castro.
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