Within a few years, hundreds of children began suffering from thyroid cancer. The most striking fact is not the scope of the disaster, but the selfless response of revolutionary Cuba, which continues to this day. For anyone familiar with Cuba’s internationalist foreign policy since the 1959 revolution, this is no surprise.
According to the World Health Organization, by 2005 more than 6,000 children in Ukraine and Belarus were diagnosed with thyroid cancer as a result of Chernobyl. Early treatment has achieved a survival rate of close to 99 percent.
The meltdown itself was completely avoidable, as was the massive release of radiation resulting from the lack of a secure containment vessel.
But perhaps the most egregious example of Moscow’s callous indifference was the refusal to rapidly evacuate affected areas and failure to prevent hundreds of thousands of children from drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine-131 in the immediate aftermath.
Thirty people — firemen, emergency and power plant workers — died within a few weeks, mostly from acute radiation poisoning.
As cases of thyroid cancer began to grow, the first group of 139 Chernobyl children arrived for treatment in Cuba on March 29, 1990. Since then Cuba has treated more than 25,000 people affected by the disaster, including at least 21,340 children. Cuban doctors have also been working in Ukraine.
The Pioneers, which organizes children between five and 15 years old in Cuba, turned over their recreation, learning and health complex at Tarará beach on the outskirts of Havana to the project. Once patients are on the island, the Cuban government pays for everything — from medicine to food, clothes, paper and pen.
“There were countries like Italy, Spain and Israel which brought small groups of children to their countries for vacation — maybe 40 or 50 children at a time, all together,” Dr. Julio Medina, director of the Tarará hospital, told MEDICC review in 2004. “But no other country offered a program, a medical assistance program completely free of charge at this kind of massive level.”
Cuba provides those in the program with attention for any medical need, regardless of whether it is related to Chernobyl or not, from dental work and immunizations to treatment of Hepatitis B or other diseases.
Classes conducted in Ukrainian are taught by teachers from Ukraine, whose salaries are paid by Cuba.
The year after the program began, the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost 85 percent of its foreign trade almost overnight, leading to a severe economic crisis marked by shortages of food and other basic necessities that Cubans refer to as the “special period.”
“These were difficult days for the Cubans,” Oleksandr Savchenko, one of a group of Ukrainians who came to Tarará in mid-1990 told Granma. “We were witnesses to how much they sacrificed so that we didn’t lack food or medicine.”
‘Cuba has a great heart’Even the New York Times couldn’t ignore Cuba’s contribution. “He needs many medicines — antibiotics, hormones — that are very expensive,” Larisa Ukrainskaya told the paper in 1995, referring to her 17-year old son who was being treated in Cuba at the time. “Cuba needs everything — bread, milk, coffee, detergent, all kinds of clothes, pencils, paper. They help, and they don’t ask for money. This little country has a great heart.”
“It would have been easy to make excuses and say don’t send one more child,” then Cuban president Fidel Castro said in a Nov. 27, 1992, speech in Havana. “The USSR and the socialist camp disappeared a while ago and we kept taking care of the Chernobyl children, in spite of the [U.S.] blockade, in spite of the special period we are going through, because it’s an ethical and moral question.” Cuba treated everyone sent from Ukraine, Castro noted, even if their illness was unrelated to the Chernobyl disaster.
Cuba has maintained the program without pause and without regard to changing governments in Kiev. After the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year Ernesto Senti, Cuba’s ambassador to Ukraine, made clear that Cuba’s aid would continue.
“Many people who are unaware of our ideals still wonder what Cuba might be after,” Dr. Medina told Granma in 2009. “It’s simple: we do not give what we have in excess; we share all that we have.”
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New Zealand art event wins new support for Cuban Five
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Exhibits of paintings by Antonio Guerrero
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