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12. Cuba Provided the Greatest Medical Aid to Haiti after the Earthquake

Cuba was the first to come into Haiti with medical aid when the January 12, 2010, earthquake struck.

According to Tom Fawthrop,

Among the many donor nations, Cuba and its medical teams have played a major role in treating Haiti’s earthquake victims. Public health experts say the Cubans were the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and to revamp hospitals immediately after the earthquake struck. Their pivotal work in the health sector has, however, received scant media coverage. “It is striking that there has been virtually no mention in the media of the fact that Cuba had several hundred health personnel on the ground before any other country,” said David Sanders, professor of public health from Western Cape University in South Africa.

The Cuban team coordinator in Haiti, Dr. Carlos Alberto Garcia, said the Cuban doctors, nurses, and other health personnel worked nonstop, day and night, with operating rooms open eighteen hours a day. Read the entire article at Al Jazeera

Student Researcher:

  • Sarah Maddox (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluators:

  • José Manuel Pestano Rodríguez and José Manuel de Pablos Coello (University of La Laguna, Canary Islands)
  • William Du Bois (Southwest Minnesota State University)


Tom Fawthrop, “Cuba’s Aid Ignored By The Media?” Al Jazeera English, February 16, 2010,


  • David Alexander Sugar October 11, 2010

    I am not entirely surprised. Cuba already had a rather large number of volunteer doctors offering free medical clinics and care to the people in Haiti before the earthquake. I also could image that Cubans see some common aspect between the slave rebellion that originally liberated Haiti and their own revolution.

  • Peter Phillips December 1, 2010


    By Fidel Castro Ruz
    November 30, 2010

    There is a lot to talk about when the United States is embroiled in a colossal scandal as the result of the documents published by Wikileaks; nobody doubts their authenticity –notwithstanding any other motivation of that website.

    However, at this time our country is immersed in a battle against cholera in Haiti, something that becomes a threat for all the other peoples of Latin America and the Third World.

    In the midst of the consequences of an earthquake that killed and injured more than half a million persons and caused enormous destruction, an epidemic broke out that, almost immediately, was aggravated by the ravages of a hurricane.

    The number of persons affected by the disease was going up yesterday, on November 29th, to 75,888; of these, the Cuban Medical Brigade looked after 27,015, with 254 deaths for 0.94 %. The rest of the state hospital facilities, the NGOs and the private ones, looked after 48,875; of these, 1,721 died for 3.03%.

    Today, November 30th, the Cuban Medical Mission which has 201 graduates of the Latin American School of Medicine in its ranks looked after 521 cholera patients, for a total of 27,536.

    Last Sunday, November 28th, 18 persons in very critical condition arrived at the Centre for Cholera treatment, in the community reference hospital, located in the commune of L’Estere in Artibonite Department; they were from a sub-commune called Plateau and were immediately cared for by the Cuban Medical Brigade’s 11 doctors and 12 nurses who were working there. Fortunately they were able to save the lives of all of them.

    On Monday the 29th, 11 more cases arrived from the same sub-commune; among them was a five-year-old child whose parents had died from cholera. Again, their lives were saved.

    Faced with such a situation, Dr. Somarriba, chief of the Medical Mission, decided to send an all-terrain vehicle with 5 doctors, 2 nurses, one male nurse and a rehabilitation specialist to the sub-commune with the resources necessary to provide emergency treatment for the cases there.

    Of the five doctors, four are ELAM graduates: a Uruguayan, a Paraguayan, a Nicaraguan, a Haitian and the Cuban brigade chief from the Artibonite Department.

    They travelled six kilometres on the highway, walked six more kilometres along the embankment and finally another two kilometres over rough terrain carrying all the equipment and resources in order to reach the sub-commune.

    Plateau is located among five mountains, with humble houses clustered at three points; the number of inhabitants is calculated to be around five thousand. They tell me there are no streets or electricity or stores, and just one Protestant church.

    The extremely poor population basically grows peanuts, millet, beans and squash.

    When they arrived in Plateau, the church’s pastor offered to organize a treatment centre inside the church, with six cots and four pews, thus allowing for emergency treatment for 10 persons.

    Today eight were admitted, three of them in critical condition.

    The villagers say that around 20 have died. Those figures do not appear in the official death toll. During the night they will work under the light of flashlights they brought in.

    The Mission decided to set up a 24-bed Cholera Medical Centre in that remote community. Tomorrow all the resources shall be sent there, including the electrical generator.

    There was also information about camera crews going to the community when they heard about the news.

    Today there were no deaths and another centre was opened up in the north, for a total of 38 centres and units to treat cholera.

    I mention this case to explain the circumstances and methods with which they are fighting the epidemic over there, an epidemic that with dozens of people dying every day is now coming close to 2,000 casualties.

    With the work methods being used and the scheduled reinforcements, it shall be more difficult for the number of deaths to stay at the former rate.

    Being aware of the passions that traditional electoral processes bring with them, besides the typical abstentions that characterize many of them, we were concerned about what could happen in Haiti in the midst of the epidemic’s destruction. A basic and never-to-be-violated principle is respect for law, the parties and the religious beliefs of the countries where our doctors of the Henry Reeve Brigade provide their services.

    However, we were worried about the versions that were being widely circulated by the international press, presenting a picture of generalized violence in the country, something far from being reality. International observers were astounded by that news being spread abroad when actually the facts that occasioned them were isolated, affecting only a small percentage of the electors who voted.

    The leaders themselves that called the people into the streets understood that it was not correct, in the middle of the country’s tragic situation, to do things that could encourage violent confrontations that would make it impossible to control and overcome the epidemic. If that aim is not achieved, this could become endemic and lead to a health disaster in Haiti and a permanent threat for the Caribbean area, as well as for Latin America, where millions of poor in growing numbers are agglomerating in the large cities; and likewise for many other poor nations in Asia and Africa.

    Never forget that Haiti also has to be rebuilt right from its foundations, with the help and cooperation of all. It is what we expect for its noble and self-sacrificing people.

  • Peter Phillips December 7, 2010


    By Fidel Castro Ruz
    December 5, 2010

    Last Friday, on December 3rd, the UN decided to devote one General Assembly session to analyzing the cholera epidemic in that sister country. News of that decision was heartening. Surely it would serve to alert international opinion about the seriousness of the fact and to mobilize its support of the Haitian people. After all, its raison d’être is to confront problems and promote peace.
    At the present, Haiti’s situation is very serious, and the emergency aid required is far too little. Our hectic world invests one million 500 thousand million dollars every year on weapons and wars; Haiti, a country that less than a year ago suffered a brutal earthquake that caused 250,000 dead, 300,000 injured and enormous destruction, needs an ever growing amount for its reconstruction and development; according to experts’ calculations the figure totals around 20 billion, just 1.3% of what is being spent in one year for such purposes.
    But now that is not what we are dealing with; that would be a mere dream. The UN is not only calling for a modest economic request that could be resolved in a few minutes but also for 350 doctors and 2,000 nurses, something that poor countries do not have and the rich countries are used to ripping away from the poor countries. Cuba responded immediately by providing 300 doctors and nurses. Our Cuban Medical Mission in Haiti looks after almost 40% of those suffering from cholera. Quickly, after the call from the international organization, the task was set to look for the concrete causes of the high death rate. The low rate for the patients they look after is less than 1%; it grows smaller and smaller day by day. Compare this to the 3% death rate of persons looked after in the other health centres at work in the country.
    It is clear that the number of deaths is not limited just to the more than 1,800 persons who are being reported. That figure does not include the persons who die without having gone to any doctor or any of the existing health centres.
    Investigating the reasons for those most serious cases that come to the centres dealing with the fight against cholera that are run by our doctors, they observed that these persons were coming from the sub-communes which were further away and had less communication. Haiti has a mountainous geography, and one can only reach many of the isolated areas by walking over rough terrain.
    The country is divided into 140 communes, both urban and rural, and 570 sub-communes. In one of the isolated sub-communes, where approximately 5,000 persons are living – according to the Protestant pastor’s calculations – 20 people had died from the epidemic without having gone to any health centre.
    According to emergency research done by the Cuban Medical Mission, in coordination with the health authorities, it has been shown that 207 Haitian sub-communes in the most isolated areas have no access to the centres fighting against cholera or providing medical care.
    At the abovementioned UN meeting, the need was confirmed by Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, who made a two-day emergency visit to the country and calculated the figure of 350 doctors and 2,000 nurses. What was needed was to calculate how many human resources were already in the country in order to figure out the number of personnel required. That factor will also depend on the hours and days devoted by the personnel fighting against the epidemic. An important fact to bear in mind is not only the time being dedicated to work, but also the daily hours. In analyzing the high death rate one can observe that 40% of the deaths occur during the night; this proves that during those hours affected patients do not receive the same treatment for the disease.
    Our Mission thinks that better use of personnel would reduce the abovementioned totals. Mobilizing the human resources available from the Henry Reeve Brigade and the ELAM graduates who are there, the Cuban Medical Mission is certain that, even in the midst of the enormous adversity caused by the destruction from the earthquake, the hurricane, the unpredictable rain and the poverty, the epidemic can be conquered and the lives of thousands of people who under the present conditions are inexorably dying could be saved.
    On Sunday the 28th, they held elections for the presidency, all of the House of Representatives and for a part of the Senate; this was a tense, complicated event that greatly concerned us because of its relationship with the epidemic and the traumatic situation of the country.
    In his statement of December 3rd, the UN Secretary General indicated, and I quote: “Whatever the complaints or reservations about the process, I urge all political actors to refrain from violence and to start discussions immediately to find a Haitian solution to these problems — before a serious crisis develops”, an important European news agency reported.
    The Secretary General, agreeing with that agency, urged the international community to carry out the delivery of 164 million dollars, of which only 20% has been supplied.
    It is not right to approach a country as it one were scolding a small child. Haiti is a country that, two hundred years ago, was the first one in this hemisphere to put an end to slavery. It has been the victim of all kinds of colonial and imperialist aggressions. It was occupied by the government of the United States just six years ago after promoting a civil war. The existence of the foreign occupying army, on behalf of the UN, does not take away this country’s right for respect for its dignity and its history.
    We believe that the position of the UN Secretary General to urge Haitian citizens to avoid confrontations among each other is correct. On the 28th, relatively early in the day, the opposition parties signed a call for street protests, causing demonstrations and creating notable confusion within the country, especially in Port-au-Prince; and especially abroad. However, both the government and the opposition were able to avoid violence. The next day, the nation was calm.
    The European agency informed that Ban Ki-moon had declared in regards to the elections last Sunday in Haiti […] that ‘the irregularities’ recorded ‘now appear more serious than what was thought at first’.”
    Whoever reads the information from Haiti and the later statements by the main opposition candidates, cannot understand how the person who is appealing for avoiding civil strife after the confusion created among the voters, just before the results of the vote count that will determine the two rival candidates in the January election, now states that the problems were more serious than what he had thought at the beginning; it’s like adding coals to the fire of political antagonisms.
    Yesterday, December 4th, it was 12 years from the arrival of the Cuban Medical Mission in the Republic of Haiti. Since then, thousands of doctors and public health technicians have provided their services in Haiti. With their people, we have lived through times of peace and war, earthquakes and hurricanes. We are by their side in these days of intervention, occupation and epidemics.
    The President of Haiti, the central and local authorities, whatever their religious or political ideas, all know that they can count on Cuba.

  • Roger Annis December 23, 2010

    The following article appeared in April 2010: “Cuban Medical Aid to Haiti: One of the World’s Best Kept Secrets,” by Professor John Kirk of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada and Emily Kirk, graduate student at Cambridge University. The article appears on the website of the Canada Haiti Action Network here:

    There are many additional articles on the same website about Cuba’s medical assistance to Haiti, including:
    * Cuba Presents Bold Plan for a Comprehensive Health Care System in Haiti (April 2010)
    * Haiti: Underdevelopment and Genocide, By Fidel Castro
    Canada Haiti Action Network

  • Harry January 1, 2011

    Cuba also made and makes a significant medical contribution in East Timor (now Timor-Leste) in 1999-present. This has been acknowledged in the Australian media, but not nearly enough. A problem is the Cubans themselves — those not working at village level are sequestered away from the public view in a barracks-like building in Dili, the capital, and, I was told, did/do not mix much with other people. For acknowledgement, the Cubans must compete for public attention. A lusty chorus of “Guantanamera” in a local bar would be a great ice-breaker! A joke? Kind of tongue in cheek, but it really could work.

  • Peter Phillips January 2, 2011

    Cuban medics in Haiti put the world to shame

    “Cuba’s contribution in Haiti is like the world’s greatest secret. They are
    barely mentioned, even though they are doing much of the heavy lifting.”

    By Nina Lakhani
    The Independent/UK: 25 December, 2010

    They are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, the human
    catastrophe on America’s doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental US
    humanitarian mission to alleviate. Except these heroes are from America’s
    arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put US efforts to shame.

    A medical brigade of 1,200 Cubans is operating all over earthquake-torn and
    cholera-infected Haiti, as part of Fidel Castro’s international medical
    mission which has won the socialist state many friends, but little
    international recognition.

    Observers of the Haiti earthquake could be forgiven for thinking
    international aid agencies were alone in tackling the devastation that
    killed 250,000 people and left nearly 1.5 million homeless. In fact, Cuban
    healthcare workers have been in Haiti since 1998, so when the earthquake
    struck the 350-strong team jumped into action. And amid the fanfare and
    publicity surrounding the arrival of help from the US and the UK, hundreds
    more Cuban doctors, nurses and therapists arrived with barely a mention.
    Most countries were gone within two months, again leaving the Cubans and
    Médecins Sans Frontières as the principal healthcare providers for the
    impoverished Caribbean island.

    Figures released last week show that Cuban medical personnel, working in 40
    centres across Haiti, have treated more than 30,000 cholera patients since
    October. They are the largest foreign contingent, treating around 40 per
    cent of all cholera patients. Another batch of medics from the Cuban Henry
    Reeve Brigade, a disaster and emergency specialist team, arrived recently as
    it became clear that Haiti was struggling to cope with the epidemic that has
    already killed hundreds.

    Since 1998, Cuba has trained 550 Haitian doctors for free at the Escuela
    Latinoamericana de Medicina en Cuba (Elam), one of the country’s most
    radical medical ventures. Another 400 are currently being trained at the
    school, which offers free education – including free books and a little
    spending money – to anyone sufficiently qualified who cannot afford to study
    medicine in their own country.

    John Kirk is a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University
    in Canada who researches Cuba’s international medical teams. He said:
    “Cuba’s contribution in Haiti is like the world’s greatest secret. They are
    barely mentioned, even though they are doing much of the heavy lifting.”

    This tradition can be traced back to 1960, when Cuba sent a handful of
    doctors to Chile, hit by a powerful earthquake, followed by a team of 50 to
    Algeria in 1963. This was four years after the revolution, which saw nearly
    half the country’s 7,000 doctors voting with their feet and leaving for the

    The travelling doctors have served as an extremely useful arm of the
    government’s foreign and economic policy, winning them friends and favours
    across the globe. The best-known programme is Operation Miracle, which began
    with ophthalmologists treating cataract sufferers in impoverished Venezuelan
    villages in exchange for oil. This initiative has restored the eyesight of
    1.8 million people in 35 countries, including that of Mario Teran, the
    Bolivian sergeant who killed Che Guevara in 1967.

    The Henry Reeve Brigade, rebuffed by the Americans after Hurricane Katrina,
    was the first team to arrive in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the
    last to leave six months later.

    Cuba’s constitution lays out an obligation to help the worst-off countries
    when possible, but international solidarity isn’t the only reason, according
    to Professor Kirk. “It allows Cuban doctors, who are frightfully underpaid,
    to earn extra money abroad and learn about diseases and conditions they have
    only read about. It is also an obsession of Fidel’s and it wins him votes in
    the UN.”

    A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers,
    are currently working in 77 poor countries, including El Salvador, Mali and
    East Timor. This still leaves one doctor for every 220 people at home, one
    of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in

    Wherever they are invited, Cubans implement their prevention-focused
    holistic model, visiting families at home, proactively monitoring maternal
    and child health. This has produced “stunning results” in parts of El
    Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, lowering infant and maternal mortality
    rates, reducing infectious diseases and leaving behind better trained local
    health workers, according to Professor Kirk’s research.

    Medical training in Cuba lasts six years – a year longer than in the UK –
    after which every graduate works as a family doctor for three years minimum.
    Working alongside a nurse, the family doctor looks after 150 to 200 families
    in the community in which they live.

    This model has helped Cuba to achieve some of the world’s most enviable
    health improvements, despite spending only $400 (£260) per person last year
    compared with $3,000 (£1,950) in the UK and $7,500 (£4,900) in the US,
    according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures.

    Infant mortality rates, one of the most reliable measures of a nation’s
    healthcare, are 4.8 per 1,000 live births – comparable with Britain and
    lower than the US. Only 5 per cent of babies are born with a low birth
    weight, a crucial factor in long-term health, and maternal mortality is the
    lowest in Latin America, World Health Organisation figures show. Cuba’s
    polyclinics, open 24 hours a day for emergencies and specialist care, are a
    step up from the family doctors. Each provides for 15,000 to 35,000 patients
    via a group of full-time consultants as well as visiting doctors, ensuring
    that most medical care is provided in the community.

    Imti Choonara, a paediatrician from Derby, leads a delegation of
    international health professionals at annual workshops in Cuba’s third city,
    Camaguey. “Healthcare in Cuba is phenomenal, and the key is the family
    doctor, who is much more proactive, and whose focus is on prevention … The
    irony is that Cubans came to the UK after the revolution to see how the NHS
    worked. They took back what they saw, refined it and developed it further;
    meanwhile we are moving towards the US model,” Professor Choonara said.

    Politics, inevitably, penetrates many aspects of Cuban healthcare. Every
    year hospitals produce a list of drugs and equipment they have been unable
    to access because of the American embargo which prevents many US companies
    from trading with Cuba, and persuades other countries to follow suit. The
    2009/10 report includes drugs for childhood cancers, HIV and arthritis, some
    anaesthetics, as well as chemicals needed to diagnose infections and store
    organs. Pharmacies in Cuba are characterised by long queues and sparsely
    stacked shelves, though in part this is because they stock only generic

    Antonio Fernandez, from the Ministry of Public Health, said: “We make 80 per
    cent of the drugs we use. The rest we import from China, former Soviet
    countries, Europe – anyone who will sell to us – but this makes it very
    expensive because of the distances.”

    On the whole, Cubans are immensely proud and supportive of their
    contribution in Haiti and other poor countries, delighted to be punching
    above their weight on the international scene. However, some people complain
    of longer waits to see their doctor because so many are working abroad. And,
    like all commodities in Cuba, medicines are available on the black market
    for those willing to risk large fines if caught buying or selling.

    International travel is beyond the reach of most Cubans, but qualified
    nurses and doctors are among those forbidden from leaving the country for
    five years after graduation, unless as part of an official medical team.

    Like everyone else, health professionals earn paltry salaries of around $20
    (£13) a month. So, contrary to official accounts, bribery exists in the
    hospital system, which means some doctors, and even hospitals, are
    off-limits unless patients can offer a little something, maybe lunch or a
    few pesos, for preferential treatment.

    Cuba’s international ventures in healthcare are becoming increasingly
    strategic. Last month, officials held talks with Brazil about developing
    Haiti’s public health system, which Brazil and Venezuela have both agreed to
    help finance.

    Medical training is another example. There are currently 8,281 students from
    more than 30 countries enrolled at Elam, which last month celebrated its
    11th anniversary. The government hopes to inculcate a sense of social
    responsibly into the students in the hope that they will work within their
    own poor communities for at least five years.

    Damien Joel Suarez, 27, a second year from New Jersey, is one of 171
    American students; 47 have already graduated. He dismisses allegations that
    Elam is part of the Cuban propaganda machine. “Of course, Che is a hero here
    but he isn’t forced down your neck.”

    Another 49,000 students are enrolled in the El Nuevo Programa de Formacion
    de Medicos Latinoamericanos, the brainchild of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez,
    who pledged in 2005 to train 100,000 doctors for the continent. The course
    is much more hands-on, and critics question the quality of the training.

    Professor Kirk disagrees: “The hi-tech approach to health needed in London
    and Toronto is irrelevant for millions of people in the Third World who are
    living in poverty. It is easy to stand on the sidelines and criticise the
    quality, but if you were living somewhere with no doctors, then you’d be
    happy to get anyone.”

    There are nine million Haitians who would probably agree.

  • Maria January 17, 2011

    This fact is reported by Fidel with much detail in his most recent 2010 “Reflections.” Not being a political analyst I can’t say how Fidel fits into the global world of appearance, intrigue, power and control….and I don’t know that he is a pure soul although sometimes I think he has potential for that yet…and this comes out in his sometimes quite incisive and regular commentaries in the Reflections, although it should be warned that at times he does ramble.

  • Medical Aid SA October 18, 2013

    Did South Africa contribute as well?