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The power of Cuba's free healthcare

(Photo: Reuters)

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.

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Ode to Cuban doctors

Cuban medic in Venezuela (Photo: Amelia Opalinska)

A December article in the British daily The Independent, entitled “Cuban medics in Haiti put the world to shame”, begins by noting that, despite Barack Obama’s pledge for a monumental humanitarian mission to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, U.S. efforts have paled in comparison to those of Cuba, which has had a sizable medical contingent stationed on the Caribbean island since 1998. Cuban doctors and nurses have been instrumental in responding to the Haitian cholera outbreak, though their efforts have gone largely unrecognized internationally.

The article, by Nina Lakhani, contains a wealth of details that might be of interest to persons concerned that socialized medicine produces inferior results. After noting that “[a] third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries” but that “this still leaves one doctor for every 220 people at home, one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England”, Lakhani writes:

Medical training in Cuba lasts six years – a year longer than in the UK – after which every graduate works as a family doctor for three years minimum. Working alongside a nurse, the family doctor looks after 150 to 200 families in the community in which they live. (more…)

Venezuelan Barrio Adentro photographs by Amelia Opalinska

While hitchhiking through Venezuela last year, my friend Amelia Opalinska and I visited a number of Barrio Adentro (Inside the Barrio) clinics, part of the joint Venezuelan-Cuban health initiative begun by Hugo Chávez. The clinics, it turned out, offered free services not only to sick Venezuelans but also to non-sick foreigners who were merely intrigued by the concept of not having to pay for medical procedures—and by clinical decorative schemes, which included portraits of Latin American revolutionaries as well as colorful construction paper calendars advertising the birthdays of staff members, Hugo Chávez, and Fidel Castro.

The effectiveness of Venezuelan-Cuban medical cooperation has been demonstrated by post-earthquake aid to Haiti, whose oil debt to Venezuela has also been cancelled by Chávez. Other purveyors of aid have however sought to downplay contributions made by nations less predisposed to view natural disasters as a moneymaking opportunity.

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Pro-Chávez half of politically polarized Venezuelan couple eats socialist arepa

Hugo Chávez at the December 2009 inauguration of the arepera socialista, part of the new Comerso (Socialist Market Corporation) initiative.

In line at the newly-inaugurated “arepera socialista”—a Caracas cafeteria offering cornmeal arepas, staple of the Venezuelan diet, at one-third the non-socialist price—a retired telecommunications employee named Ramón took advantage of the hour and a half wait to get through the door to list the issues on which he and his wife differed. A partisan of the opposition to President Hugo Chávez, the wife was reported to harbor the notion that milk not purchased at government-subsidized food shops was inherently more effective; Ramón maintained that there were more flexible members of the opposition, who complained continuously about Chávez but nonetheless indulged in socialist arepas and filled their gas tanks for less than a dollar.

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