U.S. young people are off to Cuba in mid February to study medicine at that nation’s Latin American School of Medicine (LASM). They join 8,000 other students already there. The students, from 26 countries, including eight African nations, have promised to attend to the poor and underserved when they return home.

The school opened in 1999 and 1,500 new physicians will graduate in August. Students at the school are unable to find or pay for a medical education in their own countries, so Cuba provides it for them free. The curriculum involves a six-month premedical review course, basic medical sciences for two years and then clinical studies for four years at another Cuban medical school.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), visiting in Havana in 2000, told Fidel Castro about physician shortages in the United States. Cuba responded by offering 500 annual scholarships to the LASM. The first U.S. students who arrived in 2001 will graduate in 2007. Presently the U.S. enrollment includes 75 students from 18 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, most of them Black or Latino women.

The Inter-Religious Foundation for Community Organizing (IFCO), the interfaith solidarity organization led by Rev. Lucius Walker, has recruited students for the LASM. Earlier this year, they were on the verge of having to leave Cuba because of tightened travel restrictions. But, according to Ellen Bernstein of IFCO, that group and the CBC put pressure on the State Department to issue special travel authorization for LASM students.

The LASM is located a few miles west of Havana on the site of a former navy base. When they graduate, the U.S. students will have to find residencies — training posts in U.S. hospitals — and take U.S. licensure examinations, for which IFCO has organized tutoring.

An LASM student from the Bronx writes, “Imagine, growing up in a poor neighborhood and being told, implicitly and explicitly, by society that your career choices were limited. For a long time I didn’t know that someone like myself, an African-American woman, could be, or had the opportunity, to become a doctor.”

It’s a matter of exclusion, writes Fitzhugh Mullan in a New England Journal of Medicine article about the LASM (December 23, 2004). He’s the former head of the U.S. National Health Services Corps.

“Students from these minority groups simply don’t get into medical school as often as their majority peers, which results in a scarcity of minority physicians. This inequity translates into suffering and death.”

Parents of U.S. medical students, whites and minorities alike, are relatively well off. In 2000, the parents of 36 percent of all U.S. freshmen medical students earned between $100,000 and $250,000 annually, and the parents of another 10 percent, more than $250,000. Only six percent of the students had parents earning less than $50,000 a year.

Cuba puts the right to health care into revolutionary practice. In 1961 there were only 3,000 doctors in Cuba and one medical school. Now there are 22 medical schools and 70,000 physicians. Over the course of 30 years, 25,000 Cuban volunteer physicians have worked in more than 60 countries, and 15,000 Cuban doctors are now caring for patients in 50 countries, 11,000 in Venezuela alone.

The LASM is indeed a bold venture, but hardly a surprising one given Cuba’s record of humanitarian outreach. Cuba looks to the long haul and that’s why the LASM exists. In 1998, terrible hurricanes wrought havoc in Central America — 12,000 people died. Cuban doctors were already there, but after the storms, more came.

Castro spoke at the LASM inauguration the next year. “The television images shocked the world,” he said. “But the shock fades away in a few weeks and soon everything is forgotten. The great promises are never delivered. Meanwhile, death continues to quietly take more lives every year than those caused by all the natural disasters together.” LASM-trained doctors will be going back into their own hinterlands and barrios and staying. Some of the Cuban doctors may then be able to go home.