Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala’s last president, is hardly a political ally of Fidel Castro’s, but that didn’t stop him heaping praise on Cuba’s doctors in his farewell speech in mid-January.

“As my last state duty, I didn’t want to miss out on presenting our highest order of state (the Order of the Quetzal) to the heroic brigade of Cuban doctors who, often enough, risked their lives in order to save those of Guatemalans.

“The doctors, nurses and health-care assistants have done everything imaginable during their stay here. They were doctors, mechanics, patient transporters and repairers of kitchen equipment. They have survived threats, misunderstandings, being ignored and loneliness.”

Portillo continued, “But they stayed and put into practice what friendship between peoples really means and demonstrated Cuba’s international solidarity.”

When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998, Guatemala and Honduras asked Havana for help. Within 72 hours, the first Cuban doctors arrived.

They were asked at the airport where they wanted to go. The hosts were relieved when they received the reply that they had secretly hoped to hear – the place where the need is greatest. That meant into the jungle, the mountains, the humidity and the heat. There was no electricity, no teachers, no means of transport apart from on foot, by donkey or canoe.

To people who, if they are lucky, live to 35 or 40 years of age, their misery compounded by Hurricane Mitch, this support was a godsend.

Their huts had been ripped away in the floods, along with paths and roads and their maize and beans. Mud reached up to people’s waists, corpses and animal cadavers lay around unburied, pestilence, mosquitoes and sickness were rampant. Academically-trained doctors had never been seen before in these areas.

One thousand seven hundred Cubans, male and female, have worked among these people since then, tending their needs. According to Guatemalan sources, in this time, they have managed to bring childhood death rates down from 40.2 per thousand to 13.8 per thousand live births, and they have saved 157,226 lives.

At present, 44,000 Cuban development aid workers are active in 83 countries. This figure doesn’t include the literacy workers numbering several thousand who have been active as far away as Maori communities in New Zealand.

German Padgett was the Honduran minister of culture until 2002. In an interview with the Mexican press agency NOTIMEX, he related his experience. “The Cubans are excellent professionals who provide loving care to their patients and their professional ethics come first, before anything else, unlike their Honduran colleagues, who put money first.”

“How is it possible,” he asked, “that a people that has been under a continuous blockade and has had to defend itself against continuous aggression has not lost its feelings for solidarity and care?”

– This article originally appeared in Neues Deutschland and was translated by John Green for Morning Star (U.K.).