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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.



Democracy lessons for Fidel Castro

(Image from the Wolfsonian-FIU)

The following is an excerpt from my latest article for Al Jazeera:
In the 1950s, my father’s uncle Benito was summoned to Havana by Santo Trafficante Jr, Mafia boss for the southeastern United States and Cuba and a childhood friend of Benito’s from the Ybor City neighbourhood in Tampa, Florida.

In Havana, Benito was tasked with surveillance duties at the Sans Souci night club and casino run by Trafficante, a close friend of pro-US Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Trafficante had inherited the position from his father, the Sicilian-born Santo Trafficante Sr, who had been appointed by organised crime icons, Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, to oversee gambling and drug operations in the Cuban capital, which served as a storage facility for heroin en route from Europe to the US.

Benito’s responsibilities at the Sans Souci included sounding an alert if the wife of a casino patron or other relevant figure arrived at an inopportune moment. Prospects for job security were slashed with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, however, and Benito returned to Florida to sell furniture while Trafficante enhanced his CV by becoming an accomplice of the CIA in the mission to assassinate Fidel Castro.

As journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair note in their book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, anti-Castro plots concocted by the Agency ranged from “tr[ying] to devise a way to saturate the radio studio where Castro broadcast his speeches with an aerosol form of LSD and other ‘psychic energisers'” to sabotaging his appearance before the United Nations in New York in 1960 by “plac[ing] thallium salts in Castro’s shoes and on his night table in the hope that the poisons would make the leader’s beard fall off”.


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…)

U.S. immigration laws apply only to non-terrorist Latin Americans

Luis Posada Carriles

On June 15, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez dispatched the following complaint from his Twitter account, which spanned two tweets and was couched between expressions in Venezuelan slang:

The gringo government accuses us of anything and everything, but today marks 5 years since the extradition request of the granterrorista Posada Carriles, to which they haven’t even responded. The world is full of hypocrisy. Long live the revolution!”

Current gringo accusations against Venezuela range from Chávez’ purported effort to stamp out free speech—despite the fact that the majority of national media outlets belong to the Venezuelan opposition—and the existence of commercial flights between Caracas and Tehran. As for accusations against Luis Posada Carriles, an 82-year-old Cuban exile and Venezuelan national who was formerly on the CIA payroll, these include masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cubana de Aviación flight which killed all 73 passengers on board, trying to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and contributing to the 1997 Havana hotel bombings.


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.


Second invitation to COFFEE WITH HEZBOLLAH

Following is the second excerpt from my book Coffee with Hezbollah, due for release February 1, 2010 by New World Digital, Inc. The book is the product of the hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that photographer Amelia Opalinska and I conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war waged by Israel.

The first excerpt can be viewed here.

More excerpts to come.

For additional information about Coffee with Hezbollah or to PRE-ORDER the book, please visit: http://belenfernandez-writings.blogspot.com/.

Many thanks,

Belén Fernández (belengarciabernal@gmail.com)


Location: Beirut and Cuba.

Context: Amelia and I are initially hosted in Lebanon by a Syrian acquaintance, an employee of Subway Sandwiches near the American University of Beirut (AUB) who has acquired the nickname “the Islamic Revolution.”

We were transferred from Borj Hammoud to the house of another Syrian named Basel II, in Basel II’s BMW. The Islamic Revolution encouraged Amelia and me to huddle on the floor of the vehicle during transfer, either because: 

  1. he did not want us to register our coordinates (thus according us far keener spatial  sensibilities than was necessary), or
  2. he did not want us to see the speedometer.