For over 5 decades, Cuban medical brigades have shown what true internationalism and humanism mean in practice. Now the embattled island can lead the global fight against environmental destruction
by Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdés
Counterpunch, February 3, 2012
Since 1959 Cuba has played a significant world role, quite a feat for a nation of 5 million – 11 million now. Cubans have shown their values, commitment and solidarity in dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters around the world.
Between 1960 and 2011, Cuba sent 45 medical brigades to 30 countries. From 1963 to 2010, 135,000 Cuban health professionals worked in 108 countries. Presently, 80 countries receive the health services of 38,000 Cuban “internationalists.”
Suffering Pakistanis will long remember their Cuban doctors. The October 2005 Kashmir earthquake killed 75,000, injured 100,000 and left 3-plus million homeless. Even though Cuba’s medical aid team spoke no Urdu, doctors, nurses and technicians of the newly formed Henry Reeve International Team of Medical Specialists in Disasters & Epidemics (created after Hurricane Katrina) reached the stricken region within six days of the quake.
Responding to the critical needs in the devastated areas, the Cuban team performed services ranging from treatment of acute patients to “setting up or reestablishing public health facilities destroyed” by the massive tremors.
Similarly, in 1998, Cuban medical teams reacted by sending medical aid teams after a powerful hurricane swept coastal Honduras. Cuban doctors and medical professionals in the Caribbean, the Andes, in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, have saved thousands of lives, have treated 3 million people, performed 20,000 surgeries and delivered more than a thousand babies – with no fee or strings attached.
Its literacy brigades have successfully taught millions of adults around the world. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cubans also gave their lives fighting for Angolan and Namibian independence against South African apartheid forces.
These acts of good will represented more than revolutionary élan. From the onset this outreach became part of Cuba’s survival strategy. Over decades, it built good will, badly needed after the Soviets collapsed to fend off U.S. attempts to isolate it.
By 1991, when its Soviet partners disappeared, Cuba in economic disarray, necessity forced its leaders to adopt an environmentally friendly, self-reliance strategy. Without cheap oil and heavy Soviet machinery, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides how could Cuba grow food and forge a viable economy?
Food production became not only the national focus, but a place from which developed a “national laboratory in organic agriculture.” (“Cuba Going Against the Grain,” Oxfam America, June 1, 2001)
Urban gardens sprang up; oxen reappeared instead of tractors. Small-scale farming replaced large units, and farmers learned to use green fertilizers and pest controls, massive composting and worm humus.
The radical drop in oil supplies induced massive bicycle traffic. The society was mobilized to recycle; new light bulbs attained greater efficiency. Wind power development also began.
As the Soviet bloc disappeared, neo-liberal, casino capitalism increased production, but also world levels of pollution and social inequality. As a result, environmental socialism began to appear as capitalism’s new enemy. Cuba claimed, again, its role as spokesman for small third world and especially island nations. Like Cuba, these poor islands and coastal nations confronted rising sea levels. Ironically, these countries contribute less than 1% of greenhouse gas emissions.
In the first decade of the 21st Century as the world capitalist crisis gestated – the third world poor got hit hardest – dramatic environmental catastrophes also wreaked havoc. (James O’Connor’s Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism, Guilford, 1997 and Naomi Klein’s “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” The Nation, November 9, 2011, showed the intertwined nature of the ecological crisis and the capitalist economic crisis.)
In 1992, Fidel Castro had warned at a UN Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil:
“Consumer societies are fundamentally to blame for the appalling destruction of the environment. Forests vanished, deserts grew larger; billions of fertile acres descends into the ocean, numerous species become extinct.”
But, Fidel implored, “you can’t solve this by blocking the development of those who most need it.” Instead, he argued, saving humankind from destruction requires better planetary distribution of resources and available technology.”
Calling for “a new and more just international order which uses science to sustain development without pollution,” he may have hinted at Cuba’s future role.
From 1959 on, Cuba’s revolutionaries began to spread their revolution to other post-colonial peoples. Indeed, the new nation’s survival depended on its ability take international initiatives. Since 1991, necessity has driven Cuba into environmental consciousness.
In 2012, can Cuba undertake the planetary salvation mission, to confront the climate (literally) of the times? Its educated and historically aware population – learning from their own environmental carelessness, like allowing for the contamination of Havana Harbor – experienced in internationalism, will not hesitate to experiment.
The U.S. government, media and its “dissident” opposition in Cuba trivialize attempts to achieve transcendent goals. They misdirect focus on those who supposedly died on hunger strikes or white clad women – which successfully distracts the attention of foreign publics.
The real issue, many Cubans understand, has little to with these distractions and requires a new formula for harmonious (sustainable) living – people and Nature—in the harrowing years ahead.
Because Cuba is such an important environmental reserve, and a treasure trove of diverse plant, and animal species, the Smithsonian labeled the island a “biological superpower” of the Caribbean. In addition, The Tulane Environmental Law Journal called Cuba a world model in coastal and marine management. (Summer 2003 issue dedicated to Cuba’s environment).
Cuban leaders could use this environmental foundation to articulate a new and vital mission, to organize for the Earth’s well being and humanity’s survival. Cubans might even welcome green “internationalists” from everywhere to work with them toward that worthy goal.