“The Latin American School of Medicine is Cuba’s modest contribution to unity and integration,” said Dr. Juan Carrizo Estévez, dean of the school, to the 1,610 members of the first graduating class at a ceremony in Havana Aug. 27. Students from over 20 nations were awarded degrees, including one student from the United States.

Carrizo marveled at “what can be done with political will and decisiveness regarding the training of human resources.” He said the spirit of harmonious co-existence and internationalism has multiplied with the triumph of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela.

Over 10,500 young people study at the LASM, located just west of Havana. Most come from backgrounds marked by poverty and racial discrimination. The Cuban government pays all of their expenses. Cuba developed the school as a response to the devastation in Central America caused in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch. Students who train there pledge “to care for those without care.”

Government leaders from 20 nations attended the ceremony, with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela assuming a highly visible role. Extending his visit to Cuba, he delivered his weekly television program the next day from Pinar del Rio. Currently 889 medical students from Venezuela are studying in Cuba.

Speaking to the graduates, Cuban President Fidel Castro highlighted Venezuelan-Cuban collaboration in medical education. “Everything that I have said so far pales in comparison to the colossal movement that is being promoted by Venezuela and Cuba to train doctors ready to march in the vanguard of the Bolivarian dawn,” he said.

Castro predicted that in 10 years Venezuela would graduate 40,000 physicians through collaborative programs. Cuba itself will provide medical education to 20,000 other young Venezuelans, he said, and also educate “30,000 doctors from Latin American and Caribbean countries.”

Presently 15,000 Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela in exchange for oil.

Chavez has announced plans to establish another LASM in Venezuela. He reported that every day this year Cuban eye surgeons, working in 14 ophthalmologic institutes, have operated on 1,500 Venezuelan eye patients. The so-called “Operation Miracle” has been expanded to include 120,000 people from South and Central America annually.

Castro reported that from 1965 through 2004, Cuba educated 83,982 physicians, 3,612 of them from abroad. He added that 11,154 medical students from 83 nations are now studying in Cuba, 5,500 from South America, 3,244 from Central America, and 1,039 from Caribbean nations. Some 777 students come from sub-Saharan Africa, 676 from Haiti, 403 from the Dominican Republic and 65 from the United States.

Chilean student Maria Elisa Chavez proclaimed the students’ oath: “We shall sow the fertile seed of solidarity.” She went on to describe one more agenda for the LASM, the creation of a new type of medical doctor. “We will be the apostles of the new world that has just begun to be possible,” she said. “We will work without making any social distinction following the principles of ethics and humanism learned in Cuba.”

Cedric Edwards from New Orleans was the sole U.S. member of this year’s graduating class. He commented on living in Cuba: “As an African American, I don’t feel the racial tension that I feel in the States. That feeling is completely new to me. I feel like I’m free.”

Arriving in Havana to attend the ceremony, the Rev. Lucius Walker brought 15 U.S. students with him to begin their LASM careers. His organization, Pastors for Peace, is chiefly responsible for the recruitment and support of U.S. students at the school.