Cuba’s president and international coronavirus fighters talk about the pandemic
Cuban doctors have gone around the world to fight the cornavirus including these heading off to Italy earlier this year. | YouTube

HAVANA – The Cuban president arrived early, when the blazing summer sun was still just a gentle caress over the beautiful gardens of the La Pradera International Health Center, in the western part of the capital, Havana. “We made this really early, 7:30 in the morning, so you can be home soon, which you must be longing for,” he said to the room full of medical personnel who had just returned home from helping people in other countries battle the COVID 19 pandemic.

The tone of the meeting was very much, “just family.” As he did in the on-line welcome, in the real-life welcome Miguel Díaz-Canel introduced those accompanying him (Marrero, Morales, Bruno, Rodrigo, Portal) by the names by which they are best known and the offices they hold.  This was after singing the national anthem, through face-masks, of course, as required by the standards of this phase of the epidemic we are living through.

Miguel Díaz-Canel, President of the Republic of Cuba, meets with members of the Henry Reeve Brigades who have returned from Andorra, Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda. Miguel Díaz-Canel, Presidente de la República de Cuba, se reúne con los colaboradores de las Brigadas Henry Reeve que regresaron de Andorra, Nicaragua y Antigua y Barbudas. Foto: Estudios Revolución.

“Welcome Home,” read a giant banner behind the president and his entourage. Díaz-Canel spoke of the great achievement represented by the missions completed by the 52 participants seated there in the small hall of the Center. Thirty-four of them had been in Andorra, 13 in Antigua and Barbuda, and five in Nicaragua. They had just finished the period of quarantine so they could be free of any doubts about being contagious before returning home.

Then he explained the current situation in Cuba and revealed that new measures would be gradually introduced soon to maintain control of the course of the epidemic. “I don’t want to exaggerate,” he said, “but we have reached a point where this is passing, just like any other illness.”

The president emphasized the crucial contributions of the research and the protocols developed by scientists, scholars, and Cuban medical professionals, “from whom we have learned so much.”

He emphasized statistics like the decline in the death rate, which dropped from an average of 4% at the worst period to the current 1.7%, with only 4 deaths in the last 42 days and the encouraging clinical course of the patients, with a constantly decreasing number who are in serious condition, and even fewer in critical condition.

“Admiration, affection, and profound gratitude is what we have come to bring you,” he said, “and that is what our people have given you, ever since you arrived in Cuba and the people of Havana came out to applaud you, though it was night and raining heavily.”

Then Díaz-Canel invited the Brigade participants to tell their stories.

Dr. Edelsy Delgado, an Intensive Care specialist from the Gustavo Aldereguía Hospital in Cienfuegos, kept a journal during the three months he spent in the Principality of Andorra, where he summed up the lessons and contributions derived from this mission in a country as small as it is developed.

The account given by Edelsy was very complete with regard to the therapeutic procedures and the extent of computerization, which were both useful and challenging, and he called attention to avoiding waste as a principle of hospital procedures in a highly developed country. As a point of interest: There are no fundamental differences in the training of intensive care workers in Cuba and in Andorra. But there are differences regarding how intensive care units are set up. In Andorra, the ICU patients are separated from the rest of the patients as opposed to in Cuba where patients in need of intensive care receive that in the same sections of the hospital that others receive their care. He noted that in Cuba this makes intensive care both more complicated and more expensive.

Leidisbet Lopez Cantero, a nurse from Camagüey, followed. She was the flag-bearer who couldn’t hold back her tears when she got off the airplane that brought her to Havana and saw her mother and son speaking of her in the welcoming video; she was the nursing coordinator of the Brigade in this her first international mission. She summed up her experience with two thoughts: on arrival, the nursing personnel of Andorra were ahead of us only in their level of computer use and in seven days we learned to manage that system. We arrived in Andorra in a complex situation, and when we left, Andorra was free of COVID.

Dr. Elso González Mendoza, from Las Tunas Province, who had previously been in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone and had been part of a medical mission in Bolivia until the military coup that overthrew Evo, added interesting experiences from his care for geriatric patients, including the use of subcutaneous rehydration. In Andorra, they proved the usefulness of these methods in ill patients over 100 years of age and with other associated pathology.

Dr. Michael Cabrera Laza, head of the group of five distinguished consultants in Nicaragua, was deeply moved, he said, as he spoke of traveling through all 17 regions of Nicaragua, and finding in absolutely all of them the marks left by some Cuban doctor or teacher or the presence of some community leader trained in Cuba. “And in every action that we carried out, Fidel was there,” he said.

Last to speak were the nurses Francisco González Prada of Sancti Spiritus, Liliana Martínez of Holguín, and Aldo Moreira of Camagüey, who were all part of the Antigua and Barbuda brigade which was mostly composed of nursing personnel.  They testified about their own feelings when they saw the positive changes in how their patients felt when they found out they were being cared for by Cubans. “I didn’t make a mistake; I am right where I should be,” Carlos recalls saying to himself when he witnessed this confidence.  And he topped it off by affirming, “We are where we bring the most honor to our country. A good son is always where his mother needs him.”

Cuban doctors. Médicos cubanos. Foto: Estudios Revolución.

Díaz-Canel responded to their words with his usual simplicity, “We don’t want to delay you anymore. It is an honor that you have shared the first few hours of this week with us.” And he added, “We go out into the world with goodwill and solidarity. We deliver a large amount of something that almost no one gives generously: love and solidarity. But I want to make clear that we have also learned a lot.” And he said that Intensive Care Unit procedures will be studied and reformulated, along with continuing and increasing advances in computerization of hospitals. “Love is the key to what you have achieved. The other contribution is ideological: defense of the Revolution and its continuity.”

“You have given a magnificent answer, crushing all the spite and malice of the Trump government’s sick attempts to denigrate and attack the work of our medical brigades and to cast doubt on the training and professionalism of our health personnel. They have gone so far as to accuse us of human trafficking when what Cuban medicine is noted for is dignifying human life.”

With a repeated message of gratitude, admiration, and respect for what they have accomplished, for “saving lives and lifting up values,” the president of Cuba and those who accompanied him to La Pradera said farewell to the health brigade collaborators, but not without advising them, “Hold onto your hearts; now you will truly receive a strong welcome.”

Cubadebate, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau


Arleen Rodríguez Derivet
Arleen Rodríguez Derivet

Cuban journalist and host of the Cuban television program "Round Table." Periodista cubana y conductora del programa de la televisión cubana “Mesa Redonda”.