Earthquake in Haiti: Cuba responds

By Jan. 13, less than a day after the earthquake struck Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, 30 Cuban doctors were caring for the wounded in a fully equipped field hospital. Over the next 24 hours they saw 1,000 patients and performed dozens of operations. They were followed shortly by 30 more doctors bringing additional medical supplies. By the week’s end the Cuban doctors were working in two of their field hospitals, plus two relatively undamaged existing hospitals.

Some 6,000 Cuban doctors have provided medical care in Haiti since 1998, and almost 400 were on hand there when the earthquake hit. Those in Port-au-Prince, 152 of them, were available to work with the doctors newly arrived from Cuba.

Cuban medical help took the form also of Haitian young people trained as doctors in Cuba, 551 so far. They studied at Havana’s famous Latin American School of Medicine (LASM), and in December, 67 of them returned to Haiti for their last student year to work as interns.

Students at LASM from at least 13 countries formed the “January 12 Internationalist Brigade of Solidarity with the Peoples” and asked to go to Haiti. “We feel the moral duty, internationalist and in solidarity, of devoting ourselves entirely to the urgent needs of the Haitian population,” they said in a letter. “We’ve been educated as an army of health guardians at the service of our people and of mankind,” they indicated.

Cuba is far from alone in helping stricken Haiti. Countries from every corner of the world have sent medical providers, food, medical and surgical supplies, and much more. The first planes to arrive on Jan. 13 were those of Venezuela, China and Cuba. Bolivian President Evo Morales announced plans to visit Haiti on Jan. 19.
Cuban doctors are accustomed to a worldwide beat. The Henry Reeve Brigade, composed of Cuban disaster relief specialists, has responded to floods and hurricanes in Latin America and to the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. There 2,500 Cuban medical professionals working out of 32 field hospitals spent six months caring for a million sick and wounded. Within days of the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, 1,600 members of the Henry Reeve Brigade were ready to go. The U.S. government didn’t respond to the offer.

Born in Brooklyn, Henry Reeve died in Cuba in 1876, fighting for the island’s independence from Spain. On graduating as doctors, Cuban medical students repeat a pledge that says in part: “True medicine is not that which cures, but that which prevents, whether in an isolated community on our island or in any sister country of the world, where we will always be the standard bearers of solidarity and internationalism.”

The U.S. government announced plans to send 10,000 troops to Haiti. By the end of last week two aircraft carriers were en route to Haiti. President Obama announced $100 million in aid. Whether or not that includes the $2 million a day cost of moving an aircraft carrier was unclear. Former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were commissioned to mobilize private aid money for Haiti.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed appreciation to authorities in Havana for opening up Cuban air space to U.S. military planes traveling to and from Haiti, thereby saving 90 minutes in flying time.

The Common Dreams web site reported on a media survey showing only two U.S. mainstream news stories on Cuban assistance in Haiti. The story put out by Fox News stated that Cuba had not offered aid. The Christian Science Monitor reported on the Cuban doctors’ arrival there, citing former U.S. Defense Department official Lawrence Korb’s view on the Cuban doctors that the United States “should see about flying them in.”

Photo: Ten-year-old Angie Dumee holds the hand of her father while being treated at a make-shift hospital in the street for injuries sustained during Tuesday’s earthquake in Port-au-Prince. (AP/Julie Jacobson)




W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.