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Vol. 80/No. 17      May 2, 2016

(feature article)

‘We carried out a duty that is true to the moral values of Cuban Revolution’

Book describes Cuban internationalists’ decisive role in fighting Ebola in West Africa

HAVANA — “I’ve been part of medical missions in other African and Central American countries, but this was the most challenging one I’ve had in my life,” said Dr. Jorge Delgado, head of the Cuban emergency medical team that went to Sierra Leone in late 2014 to fight the Ebola epidemic.

“Seventy percent of the people of Sierra Leone live in poverty; the illiteracy rate is 70 percent; 70 percent have no access to radio or television. All that contributed to the spread of the disease,” Delgado said.

“When we got there the mortality rate for those with Ebola was 80 percent. The treatment we helped provide brought it down to 29 percent.”

Delgado spoke at a Feb. 12 meeting here to launch the book Zona Roja: La experiencia cubana del ébola (Red Zone: The Cuban Experience with Ebola). The author, Enrique Ubieta, headed a team of three reporters who accompanied the Cuban medical teams in West Africa for several weeks. The book was published by Casa Editora Abril of Cuba’s Union of Young Communists.

Zona Roja paints a graphic picture of the social disaster that unfolded in West Africa in 2014-15, the callously inadequate response by the world’s major capitalist powers, and Cuba’s decisive role in pushing back the epidemic. It brings to life the internationalist example of the Cuban Revolution. As one of the doctors interviewed by Ubieta put it, “We simply carried out a duty that is in line with the moral values of the revolution.”

The book presentation was one of the high points of the Havana International Book Fair in February. The meeting was standing-room only. In the audience were two dozen members of the 256-strong contingent of Cuban doctors, nurses and health care technicians who proudly served as volunteers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to combat the deadly Ebola epidemic, from October 2014 through May 2015. One of them was Félix Báez, the only member of the Cuban contingent who contracted Ebola, who returned to the battle front after recovering abroad.

Carlos Castro and Juan Carlos Dupuy, heads of the Cuban medical brigades in Guinea and Liberia, respectively, spoke along with Delgado. The main presentation was given by Abel Prieto, long-time minister of culture and currently an adviser to Cuban President Raúl Castro. (Excerpts of his remarks appear below.)

Citing numerous interviews Ubieta did with Cuban volunteers and local residents, Prieto gave a picture of the powerful story told in the book.

He quoted a doctor who explained that the Cubans were the first ones to touch their patients in the clinic’s “red zone,” where those confirmed to have the disease were isolated and treated. Until then, the other international medical personnel, as a “safety” policy, did not touch Africans they were treating — not even to provide intravenous hydration, a simple but decisive procedure in saving lives.

While maintaining the strictest safety procedures, the Cuban volunteers approached the patients and their family members as fellow human beings and equals, winning their trust and cooperation.

“The book describes how recruitment to the mission was organized as a voluntary effort, which for us is a basic principle. And there was a big response,” said Dr. Dupuy. Soon after the Cuban government received a request for aid, it issued an appeal for trained medical personnel. Within three days, more than 12,000 doctors, nurses and technicians responded. Of these, 256 were selected after intensive training.

The Cuban volunteers are part of the Henry Reeve International Contingent, launched at the initiative of then President Fidel Castro in September 2005 to provide aid to New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast. The U.S. government rejected Cuba’s offer to send 1,500 medical personnel, and instead left working people in the region to fend for themselves.

A month later, a brigade of 2,500 Cuban medical personnel went to Pakistan, where they provided care for 1.8 million people affected by an earthquake that devastated the mountainous northwestern region. Since then, the Henry Reeve Contingent — named after a Brooklyn-born volunteer in Cuba’s war for independence from Spain that began in 1868 — has continued to assist other countries facing natural disasters and epidemics, from Haiti to Nepal.

As Zona Roja notes, Cuban medical volunteers have served in countries around the world since the revolution began in 1959. At the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic, Cuban doctors, nurses and health care technicians were already working in 32 African countries, including Sierra Leone and Guinea. And Cuba has won widespread respect in Africa for sending volunteer combatants to aid national liberation struggles, from the Congo to Guinea-Bissau to Angola.

“I knew Cuba was not going to leave us on our own,” said Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma when he was informed of Cuba’s decision to send volunteers. “You’re true to your heritage, to your African roots. It’s what Fidel has taught you. Tell [President] Raúl Castro and the people of Cuba we will never forget this.”

Values of socialist revolution

Despite initial concerns among some that returning volunteers could introduce Ebola to Cuba, the selfless example of the internationalists in West Africa was very popular on the island. Millions followed closely the news of their experiences.

It was also a learning experience — about the conditions of exploitation and underdevelopment bred by capitalism as well as the working-class values of solidarity that are a cornerstone of Cuba’s socialist revolution.

“This was a big experience for the younger members of the brigade who had never been part of a mission abroad,” said Dr. Castro, head of the brigade in Guinea, at the Feb. 12 meeting. “They were able to compare what we have in Cuba with what people as poor as those we treated do not have,” he said. “They witnessed social conditions that explain why the epidemic was so ferocious.”

Ubieta previously wrote two other books about Cuba’s medical cooperation abroad, based on his firsthand reporting — in Central America and Haiti following the 1998 hurricanes there, and in Venezuela, where tens of thousands of Cuban medical personnel have served over the past 15 years.

“People have asked me why I write about the Cuban doctors,” Ubieta told the audience at the book launch. “I don’t write about the doctors. I write about the solidarity and internationalism that is at the heart of the revolution. I write about the seeds we are sowing inside and outside of ourselves. Every time a Cuban doctor takes part in a mission abroad, they renew themselves as revolutionaries.”

Today there are some who say “that the epic moments of the Cuban Revolution are a thing of the past,” Ubieta said, “that Cubans should concern themselves only with their own individual, everyday problems, which can sometimes be overwhelming.

“And then suddenly you hear the battle cry, like the request for aid we received. And thousands turn out and volunteer to go,” he said. “It shows solidarity is very much alive in the Cuban people.”

Philippe Tessier contributed to this article.
Related articles:
‘Motivated by solidarity, not material interest’
Ebola epidemic: Bred by imperialist plunder

Related articles from previous issues:
October 6, 2014:
‘Cuba’s response is part of our solidarity with Africa’
Cuban leader addresses UN Council on Ebola outbreak
October 13, 2014:
Cuba’s internationalist foreign policy
November 10, 2014:
Cuba vs. US: two class responses to Ebola’s spread
March 2, 2015:
Cuba pledges fight to the end against Ebola in West Africa
April 13, 2015:
Cubans’ ‘revolutionary ethics’ lead to advances against Ebola
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