Lessons on International Solidarity from Cuba

From the July/August 2016 PNL #851

by Ursula Rozum

I arrived in Havana, Cuba on March 26. Both President Obama and the Rolling Stones had visited the island that week. According to our host, Madelaine, a Syracuse native studying medicine in Havana, by late March 2016 Cuba was breaking tourism records, having already hosted over 1 million visitors in just the first quarter of the year. Tourists from all over the world visit Cuba. Only US citizens have to jump through hoops to enjoy the island’s culture and natural splendors due to Cold War era economic sanctions. These, according to the United Nations, have over five decades cost the country over $1 trillion in economic development. I had the opportunity to live in Cuba for four month during a study abroad program over ten years ago. My parents had grown up in Soviet Poland and I was curious to see firsthand what life was like in a communist country. This time, I travelled on a journalistic visa to observe the Cuban medical system. I also wanted see what changes, if any, could be observed since the thaw in US-Cuba relations.

Most Cubans I spoke with were eager to share their opinions about Obama’s visit and generally, about life in their country. Some agreed with the US President about leaving behind “the ideological battles of the past” while others were skeptical of US government intentions given its history of aggression against Cuba. The most violent acts were perpetrated by the Cuban-exile community with support and financing from the US government. Attacks like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the bombings of hotels and stores in Havana as well as airliners, all which costs hundred of Cuban lives, and CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro are detailed in the documentary by Saul Landau “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up.”

While the United States has for over five decades unsuccessfully explored ways to overthrow Cuba’s government, the Cuban government has turned the other cheek. Cuba was one of the first countries to extend aid after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, offering to send 1,586 doctors and 26 tons of medicine. This aid was rejected by the State Department. Many are aware that Cuba provides free healthcare and education to its citizens. These are guaranteed as a human right in its Constitution of 1976 along with housing and equal pay for women. What many don’t know, however, is that since 2001 US doctors have been training at Cuba’s international medical school. Currently, nearly one hundred US students study medicine at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM by its Spanish acronym) in Havana. The average medical student in the US graduates with $180,000 in debt, pushing new doctors into higher paying “specializations” which can pay more than twice as much as working in socially essential fields like primary care and pediatrics. US students who are accepted into the Cuban medical program receive complete six-year scholarships in exchange for making a commitment to treat the underserved of their communities upon graduating. They are trained extensively in preventative medicine and public health.

US students at the Cuban medical school study alongside aspiring doctors from around the world. I spoke at length with Ahmed, a fifth year Palestinian student from Gaza. Ahmed applied to the Cuban medical program “to help his people” who face a desperate situation. His experience highlights the contrast between US and Cuban foreign policy. Ahmed’s father died in the 2014 Israeli war in Gaza. Billions of dollars in annual US military aid to Israel support its brutal treatment of the Palestinian people and the spread of Israeli settlements (which are illegal under international law). Meanwhile, Cuba has been training Palestinian doctors for decades.

According to the students I spoke with, there is now a large delegation from Yemen studying medicine in Havana. Their skills will be in high demand when they return home to what is the poorest country in the Middle East. In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began its involvement in Yemen’s civil war using US-produced aircraft, missiles, and internationally banned cluster bombs. More than 6,200 civilians have been killed, millions displaced, and the country has been pushed to the brink of famine. According to a poll released in April, 82 percent of Yemenis between the ages of 18 and 24 now view the United States as an enemy. Knowing what we know about US foreign policy, can we blame them?

Like Cuba’s “medical internationalism,” the country’s universal healthcare system is a source of great pride. It’s impressive how much the Cubans are able accomplish with so little. Cuba and the United States have similar life expectancies, around 79 years. Yet according to the World Bank, the United States spends about $9000 per capita annually on healthcare while Cuba spends less than $1000. Cuba boasts the world’s highest doctor to patient ratio, about 1 to 170. The healthcare system is based on community clinics where doctors and nurses live in the neighborhoods they serve and their focus is preventing disease. Cuba’s strong healthcare system is not immune, however, to the US embargo. Many hospitals lack the modern equipment, such as CAT scans and access to analgesics. When I asked if the medical students needed me to bring them anything from the US, they requested recordable CDs for patients’ imaging studies.

The official US policy of economic and ideological aggression has failed to create regime change in Cuba. It’s far past time to lift the embargo against Cuba, return the base at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, and respect that country’s sovereignty. There is a fair amount the US could learn from Cuba about international cooperation and economic human rights. If you look around Syracuse, it could easily be argued that it’s the political-economic model here in the US that is failing and needs changing.


Ursula spent a semester in Cuba in 2005. Contact her at Ursula@peacecouncil.net to find out about a potential delegation to Cuba in 2017.