Cuba offers medical training to Colombians affected by civil war
Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, motions to bring together Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, and Commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko, during a signing ceremony of a cease-fire and rebel disarmament deal, in Havana, Cuba on June 23, 2016. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

The communication Cuba’s ambassador sent to the “Commission for Follow-up, Impetus, and Verification” in Colombia on March 13 was no routine matter. Ambassador José Luis Ponce Caballero informed the Commission of “the Cuban government’s offer of one thousand scholarships to pursue studies for a medical career in Cuba as [a] contribution to the process of implementation of the Agreement in Havana and to the post-conflict.”

On November 24, 2016 Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) signed an agreement ending decades of civil war. The Commission was a product of that agreement. Cuba’s offer of medical scholarships is symbolic of the nation’s enduring commitment to peace in Colombia. The country had already hosted the negotiations leading to the agreement, talks that stretched over four years.

The Ambassador indicated that Cuba, each year for five years, would be distributing 100 scholarships to the Colombian government and 100 more to the FARC-EP, now in the process of demobilizing. Presumably the selection of scholarship recipients will begin soon; they need to be in Cuba by September 2017 when the next academic term begins.

Later, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, explained that the government’s share of the scholarships would go to “Colombians with the least resources who have lived in areas affected by armed conflict, [to] social leaders, and [to] all those affected by the conflict and lacking opportunities for education.” Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo said that “victims of the conflict” would be receiving scholarships.

The Colombian students will probably be attending the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM by its initials in Spanish) once they arrive in Cuba, although the initial announcement did not specify. Since 2005, the school has graduated 1,500 new physicians annually from a total of  84 countries. Typically, students attending ELAM are unable to pay for a medical education, and in exchange for free tuition, they commit themselves as physicians to serving the underserved when they return to their home countries. The students’ six-year long course of study includes four years of clinical experience in hospitals throughout the island.

Medicine students look through microscopes at a laboratory of the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Monday, March 15, 2010. | Javier Galeano / AP

Prior to the existence of ELAM, other Colombians also studied medicine in Cuba courtesy of the island’s government. One was Jorge Iván Ospina, whose father was killed in an Army confrontation with guerrillas in 1985 and who now is a surgeon and senator in Colombia’s congress. In an interview, he commented on Colombian students repeating his experience: “There’s nothing more significant than changing the rifle for the scalpel, saving lives instead of attacking them.”

He recalled that, “It was a very abrupt change… One needs support and a lot of academic dedication.” He suggested that many former combatants lacking educational experience, or far removed from their schooling, will need to be “sustained by the Colombian government” with remedial coursework.

The Colombian government, however, has delayed in implementing aspects of the peace agreement, and very likely Dr. Ospina’s recommendation will not be acted upon soon. For example, Colombia’s Congress waited until March 13 to authorize the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” which is supposed to decide on pardons for ex-combatants. Former guerrillas still lack living facilities in the rural areas where they are giving up arms. Political prisoners and FARC prisoners of war remain behind bars.

Yet El Tiempo, Colombia’s pre-eminent national newspaper, greeted Cuba’s offer with enthusiasm: “May this idea become an example for other centers of study, for those other important projects of this country that we are looking to float as best we can. Perhaps this idea will be contagious in our own society; we must see and feel that it’s better to wield pencils than weapons.”

Cuba was not the only country making an offer to Colombia last week though. Mikael Damberg, Sweden’s Minister of Enterprise and Innovation, visited Colombia on March 14 with a proposal to sell Saab Corporation’s “JAS 39 Gripen” fighter plane. “I have signed a defense cooperation agreement between Sweden and Colombia,” he told reporters, adding, “The [Colombian] armed forces are one of the important components of this peace transition.”

Just as a long civil war is ending in Colombia, Cuba offers to prepare physicians to help those who have suffered. Sweden shows up with a marketing initiative for a new weapon of war.

What a difference a commitment to socialism and human solidarity can make.


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

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.