‘To be a revolutionary doctor,
you must make revolution’
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Che Guevara Talks to Young People, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. It’s taken from a speech Guevara gave to a meeting of medical students in Havana, Aug. 19, 1960. Copyright © 2000 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY CHE GUEVARA
Almost everyone knows that a number of years ago I started out my career to be a doctor. And when I started, when I began to study medicine, the majority of the concepts I hold today as a revolutionary were absent from the storehouse of my ideals.
I wanted to succeed, as everybody wants to succeed. I dreamed of being a famous researcher. I dreamed of working tirelessly to achieve something that could really be put at the disposal of humanity, but that would be a personal triumph at the same time. I was, as we all are, a child of my environment.
Through special circumstances and perhaps also because of my character, after receiving my degree I began to travel through Latin America and got to know it intimately. Except for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I have visited—to one degree or another—all the countries of Latin America. Given how I traveled, first as a student and afterward as a doctor, I began to come into close contact with poverty, with hunger, with disease, with the inability to cure a child due to lack of resources, with the numbness that hunger and unrelenting punishment cause until a point is reached where a parent losing a child becomes an accident of no importance, as is often the case among those classes in our Latin American homeland who have been dealt the heaviest blows. And I began to see there was something that seemed to me almost as important as being a famous researcher or making a substantial contribution to medical science: it was helping those people.
But I continued to be, as all of us always are, a child of my environment, and I wanted to help people through my personal efforts. I had already traveled a lot—I was then in Guatemala, the Guatemala of Arbenz—and I had begun to make some notes to guide the conduct of a revolutionary doctor. I began to look into what was needed for me to be a revolutionary doctor. …
Then I realized a fundamental thing: to be a revolutionary doctor, or to be a revolutionary, there must first be a revolution. The isolated effort, the individual effort, the purity of ideals, the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the noblest of ideals—all that is for naught if the effort is made alone, solitary, in some corner of Latin America, fighting against hostile governments and social conditions that permit no progress. A revolution needs what we have in Cuba: an entire people who are mobilized, who have learned the use of arms and the practice of unity in combat, who know what a weapon is worth and what the people’s unity is worth.
Then we get to the heart of the problem that today lies ahead of us. We already have the right and even the obligation to be, before anything else, a revolutionary doctor, that is, a person who puts the technical knowledge of his profession at the service of the revolution and of the people. Then we come back to the earlier questions: How does one do a job of social welfare effectively? How does one reconcile individual effort with the needs of society?
Once again we have to recall what each of our lives was like prior to the revolution—what each of us did and thought, as a doctor or in any other public health function. We must do so with profound critical enthusiasm. And we will conclude that almost everything we thought and felt in that past epoch should be filed away, and we should create a new type of human being. If each one of us is his own architect in doing so, then creating that new type of human being—who will be the representative of the new Cuba—will be much easier.
It is good for you—those present here, residents of Havana—to absorb this idea: that in Cuba a new type of human being is coming into existence, one that cannot be entirely appreciated in the capital, but that can be seen in every corner of the country. Those of you who went to the Sierra Maestra on July 26 must have seen two absolutely unheard-of things: an army with picks and shovels, one that takes such pride in marching in the patriotic celebrations in Oriente province with its picks and shovels ready, side by side with the militia compañeros marching with their rifles. [Applause] But you must also have seen something much more important: You must have seen some children who by their physical stature appear eight or nine years old, but who are nevertheless almost all thirteen or fourteen. They are the most authentic children of the Sierra Maestra, the most authentic children of hunger and poverty in all its forms. They are the creatures of malnutrition.
In this small Cuba, with four or five television channels, with hundreds of radio stations, despite all the advances of modern science, when those children for the first time came to school at night and saw electric lights, they exclaimed that the stars were very low that night. Those children, whom some of you would have seen, have now been brought together in schools where they are learning everything from the ABCs right up to a trade, right up to the very difficult science of being a revolutionary.
These are the new types of human beings emerging in Cuba. They are being born in isolated places, in remote points in the Sierra Maestra and also in the cooperatives and workplaces.
All that has a lot to do with the topic of our talk today: the integration of the doctor or any other medical worker into the revolutionary movement. Because the revolution’s tasks—of training and nourishing the children, educating the army, distributing the lands of the absentee landlords among those who sweated every day on that same land without reaping its fruit—those are the greatest works of social medicine that Cuba has achieved.
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