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Vol. 74/No. 1      January 4, 2010

Solomons students overcome
block to medical study in Cuba
(front page)
AUCKLAND, New Zealand—Twenty-five students from the Solomon Islands joined other students from that country to attend medical school in Cuba in November. They lost a month of study, however, after the ANZ Bank sent back money donated by the Iranian government to pay their airfares.

The students were able to fly to Cuba after Iranian government representatives handed over the aid money directly to their Solomons counterparts. The students join 50 others from the Solomons already studying medicine in Cuba.

ANZ said it refused to release the money “for political reasons” and would not process transactions involving Iran, Sudan, Syria, North Korea, Myanmar, or Cuba.

Some Solomon Islands government officials blamed “pressure” from the Australian government for the decision. One told the Solomon Star, “If Australia does not want Iranian or Cuban influence in Solomon Islands—there’s only one way to deal with it. Give our medical students placements and meet their costs in Australian medical schools. It’s that simple.”

ANZ is the largest bank in New Zealand and the fourth largest in Australia. It is the government bank in the Solomons and has interests throughout the Pacific Islands. In August it was fined $5.75 million by the U.S. Treasury Department for allegedly violating Washington’s embargoes against Cuba and Sudan. Bank officials then agreed to take measures to prevent further violations.

The Solomon Times Online reported in 2008 that the island nation had only 59 doctors in total, out of a population of about 550,000.

Students from Timor Leste and five Pacific Island nations are also studying in Cuba at the Pacific School of Medicine. They are from Kiribati, Nauru, Tuvalu, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Cuban doctors are in most of these countries. The Cuban government meets the costs of this.

Kiribati provides an example of the enormous impact of this internationalist solidarity. Ten Cuban doctors arrived there in 2006 and one year later the child mortality rate had fallen by 80 percent, from 50 in every 1,000 down to 9.9.

Speaking at a meeting in Auckland September 6, Tim Anderson, a lecturer at the University of Sydney, highlighted Cuba’s extensive assistance to Timor Leste, also known as East Timor.

Between April 2003 and mid-2009 nearly 300 Cuban health workers carried out more than 2.7 million consultations in Timor Leste and saved an estimated 11,406 lives. Many of the doctors work in rural areas that have never before had a resident physician, Anderson explained. About 80 percent of the country’s 1.1 million people live in the countryside.

As well as paying for these doctors, the Cuban government provides scholarships for students from Timor to study in Cuba, and has helped set up a medical school in Dili, Timor’s capital. This year there were 700 Timorese students enrolled at the faculty in Cuba and 165 in Dili.

Fifty Cubans are also implementing their Yo Sí Puedo (I Can Do It) program to teach Timorese to read and write. Timor Leste’s adult illiteracy rate is more than 50 percent, and in some remote areas it is as high as 90 percent.

Anderson contrasted Cuba’s medical solidarity with the response of the Australian government, which provides a measly 20 scholarships each year for Timor Leste while the New Zealand government provides 10. Meanwhile, the two imperialist powers have a significant commitment of more than 800 troops and police in Timor.

The Cuban government has offered medical scholarships to other Pacific nations. Radio New Zealand reported in July 2007 that the Australian government warned the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) “not to recruit Cuban doctors because of Australian fears that it would destabilize security in the Pacific.”

An obstetrician from PNG, Gunzee Gawin, said September 22 at a health hearing in Wellington that the risk of a woman dying in childbirth in PNG was one in 20, compared with one in 10,000 in New Zealand. “Three years in Australia I didn’t see any single maternal death, I’ve been two years back home and I’ve already seen 15,” he said.

“Teenage pregnancies are very high. A huge proportion of the maternal deaths are teenagers trying to abort unwanted, unplanned pregnancies,” Gawin said, appealing to the New Zealand government for medical funding and training.  
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