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Vol. 80/No. 17      May 2, 2016

(feature article)

‘Motivated by solidarity, not material interest’

The following are major excerpts of remarks by Abel Prieto at the Feb. 12 launching of Zona Roja: La experiencia cubana del ébola (Red Zone: The Cuban Experience with Ebola) during the Havana International Book Fair. The book, by Enrique Ubieta, was published in Havana by Casa Editora Abril. Prieto, today an adviser to Cuban President Raúl Castro, is a former president of the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba (UNEAC) and served as minister of culture for many years. Prieto and Ubieta spoke along with Jorge Delgado, Carlos Castro, and Juan Carlos Dupuy, heads of the Cuban medical brigades in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, respectively. Translation and subheadings are by the Militant.

Ubieta tells me we have here with us doctors Jorge Pérez — director of the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, who was in charge of the brigade’s training in Cuba — and Félix Báez, the only Cuban who contracted Ebola.

Jorge went to Geneva to the hospital where Félix was being treated. He spoke to him by phone, separated by a window, and Félix told him, “Hey Prof, I’m going back to Sierra Leone.” In fact, he was seriously ill. But he did recover and he did go back.

That’s the example set by our three brothers here and the other compañeros from the Ebola brigade who are present today.

I want to begin by confessing that when Ubieta asked me to present this book at the fair, I told him immediately that of course I would. But when I said that, it was in the midst of our daily madness, thinking that it was purely an informational book — that it would give me more facts, a better-organized report on something I already knew about through the media and through Ubieta’s own journalism.

But the book knocked me over — it’s so much more than what I expected. Dr. Delgado put it very well. It’s a book of firsthand accounts, but it’s much more than that. It presents the drama of Africa. It takes up the subject Ubieta has dealt with in many of his essays, the whole question of cultural colonization. It gives an overview of Cuba’s epic battle against Ebola.

A book to promote among youth
As I read it I realized that Zona Roja is about people, facts, processes, and situations I really knew nothing about. I believe many other readers will have a similar reaction. It’s a book we should promote especially among the youth.

It recounts the selflessness, principles and convictions that sustained the Cuban doctors and nurses. It begins with a quote from a speech by Fidel [Castro] on Oct. 17, 1962, when the Playa Girón Medical School was inaugurated:

“When I spoke today with the students, we said 50 volunteer doctors were needed to go to Algeria. … And we’re sure we’re going to get those volunteers.”

We’re speaking here of 1962. Ubieta recounts how half of the doctors in Cuba at that time — 3,000 out of 6,000 — left after the triumph of the revolution.

“Within eight or 10 years, who knows how many [we’ll be able to send],” Fidel said. “We’ll be able to help our sister nations.”

In one of his Reflections, on Oct. 18, 2014, as Cuban volunteers were beginning the Ebola mission, Fidel commented, “The medical personnel who will go anywhere to save lives, even at risk of losing their own, are the greatest example of solidarity a human being can offer, above all because they aren’t motivated by material interest.”

When Ubieta and his team arrived in Guinea and met with the son and the widow of [the former French colony’s first president, Ahmed] Sékou Touré, they spoke of Fidel’s first visit to Guinea and his relationship with the Guinean leader. Mohamed Touré, son of Sékou Touré, said, “If we’re going to speak of the great historical leaders of Africa, we have to begin with Fidel Castro Ruz, who is for us an African, a Cuban, a man of the world, a hero in the fight for the liberation of Africa.”

A half-century of solidarity in Africa
“In Guinea,” said Ubieta, “I realized that if I wanted to write about the great internationalist feat of our doctors in the fight against Ebola, I’d have to begin by noting Cuba’s half century of solidarity in Africa.”

Jorge Lefebre, Cuba’s ambassador in Sierra Leone and Liberia, who is here today, remembers the call he got from Raúl, “We’ve evaluated everything. We’re going to send help to Africa. You must talk with the presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia because tomorrow we’re going to announce our decision publicly.”

“This was mid-September,” Lefebre said, “and by Oct. 2 the first plane was landing in Sierra Leone.”

Along with forceful descriptions, stories, and firsthand accounts, Ubieta outlines the story of Africa in all its dramatic scope.

As he arrives in Liberia, he writes, “Our minds get filled with false images that TV and film, and more recently the Internet, infiltrate into our retinas and predetermine what we see. It’s not that they are totally false — it’s that they create almost insurmountable stereotypes.

“I want to meet the human beings who live in the city. To understand a doctor you must understand the patient. In the streets, many complain when we try to take out our cameras. Africans don’t like arrogant photographers, foreigners who come to record poverty and turn the human beings who inhabit the continent into a landscape, plundered and humiliated over and over again. They’re tired of being exotic objects for travelers who care nothing about them.”

Later he points to a pathetic initiative — supposedly an act of solidarity — by some famous musicians from Europe and the United States. In November 2014 “they recorded a song of ‘solidarity’ with those stricken by Ebola.” But, Ubieta says, “they didn’t make the slightest effort to find out about the culture of the people suffering from the epidemic. … The title of the song — “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — was disastrous as an attempt to connect with a population that is majority Muslim in two of the three affected countries [Sierra Leone and Guinea]. And the lyrics, far from being educational, gave an inaccurate description of the epidemic and instilled fear among Europeans. In Africa the song of “solidarity” was met with rejection.

He quotes a Liberian scholar who says, “They ask if we know what Christmas is. Yes, we know. But we don’t celebrate it.”

That song is an example of celebrity philanthropy, an approach that leads the rich and famous to buy children from the Third World, adopt them, and uproot them from their land and cultural heritage.

Obstacle of cultural colonialism
Other foreigners who have gone to Africa bring the blinders of cultural colonialism as well — but not the Cubans. Our revolutionary training, our experience in extending solidarity, makes unthinkable any paternalistic or colonial relationship with the people who are afflicted.

Ubieta quotes an anthropologist from Senegal who says, “An absurd and harmful conflict developed between the people and the authorities — the people tried to evade the health measures the authorities established. They were angry, frustrated, and scared by a disease that was killing them and by recommendations that clashed with their belief system. They felt misunderstood and abandoned by the entire world.”

The Cuban brigades had to overcome these cultural obstacles as well. And what Ubieta describes shows they managed to do it well thanks to their dedication. The genuine dedication and solidarity that sustained the brigades’ efforts became apparent to the patients and the communities.

Ubieta describes the preceding devastation that resulted from more than 10 years of war between Liberia and Sierra Leone, which destroyed the health care structures of both countries. He explains how colonialism created the so-called ethnic conflicts:

“In Africa the colonialists divided up territory like they were cutting a cake. Each one took the biggest or most appetizing piece, or as much as they could, of ‘nature’ (meaning natural resources). In the process they divided cultures, languages, and local traditions.

“For the colonist it was more important to protect a diamond or gold mine than a culture. It also made domination easier. They used some ethnic groups against others.”

Ubieta explains how ethnic conflicts mask the social tragedy, the economic tragedy, the inequality.

He devotes a chapter to Cuban women. He mentions a female doctor who was already there as part of the Comprehensive Public Health Program and sent a letter [to Havana] insisting that the female doctors and nurses wanted to stay to join in the fight against Ebola.

Ubieta concludes, “Poverty, with all its social and cultural consequences, is the biggest factor producing and transmitting deadly diseases. And African poverty is the daughter of modernity, that is, of capitalism. Capitalism generates poverty, biological weapons, the profit drive and ecological catastrophes.”

One of the doctors interviewed by Ubieta is Graciliano Díaz from Santiago de Cuba — he’s here today. I’ve been submerged in all your eyewitness accounts but I’ve never met you.

Lack of basic health care
Graciliano told Ubieta the following about Guinea, “There are no statistics, no data, so it’s difficult to talk about the state of health and hygiene in the country. There’s no health and hygiene awareness at any level and that has helped to spread the disease.”

Today we’re dealing with Ebola, says Graciliano, but way before that it was malaria, encephalitis, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis and AIDS.”

Ubieta provides some terrifying facts. [See box on page 9.]

As Ambassador Jorge Lefebre told Ubieta, when the medical brigade from the Comprehensive Public Health Program arrived in Sierra Leone, the health minister said something that pulls at your heart when you read it. “You can’t imagine how much we appreciate the medical help Cuba is giving us,” she said. “Everywhere else in the world, a woman becoming pregnant is a source of happiness for the family. In my country, it’s a source of deep sadness. It means that at the end of pregnancy one of the two will die — the mother or the child. You’re bringing help so that does not happen.”

Liberia’s foreign minister told Ubieta, “In September and October [2014], Liberia seemed like hell. … Our people were dying in massive numbers. … Cuba sent medical personnel and they shared the risks with us. They said they were brothers who had come from across the ocean to help us. … When the story is told of how we defeated this disease, an important chapter will be devoted to the role of Cuba and the Cuban doctors.”

People you’d like to have at your side
Zona Roja contains no rhetoric. The heroism of the Cuban doctors and nurses emerges from their own accounts and actions. I listened to Dr. Juan Carlos, who spoke of the strictly voluntary nature of the mission. For many of the internationalists the most difficult moment wasn’t the decision to join the mission. It was when they had to tell their families. Ubieta collected several accounts about this.

Kike [Dr. Ángel Enrique Betancourt] says, “They called me, and my wife told me not to say yes. … But I had a history. If my father died the way he did, how could I not go?” Kike’s father was [Mozambican President] Samora Machel’s doctor. He died in 1986 in the attack that brought down the presidential plane, clearly the work of the South Africans. “I have to fulfill my duty,” Kike said.

Those are the people you’d like to have by your side in combat, in the heaviest fighting.

A nurse, Eduardo Rodríguez Almora, was interviewed in Monrovia. He said, “My mother was really upset when she heard I was going. She started crying. ‘Please be careful,’ she told me over and over. But at no time did she say, ‘No, don’t go.’”

Nurse Rogelio Labrador Alemán was supported by his brothers — one of them was an internationalist combatant in Angola. But, he explained, “I told my mother, who at that time was 93 years old, that I was going to Haiti to teach. … By the end of the mission, my mother had heard where I really was. When I returned she was very excited. She went over to the provincial health ministry office to wait for me. … She had prepared to welcome me several days in advance. My flight was delayed. People told her to go home and wait there. ‘No,’ she said, ‘my son the hero is arriving today.’”

When Dr. Félix Báez’s son learned from the Ministry of Health that the Ebola diagnostic test done on his father had come out positive, he sent a message that serves as the title to a chapter in this book, “Dad, be strong. Everything will be all right.”

Alejandro — I believe that’s the name of Félix’s son — sent a second message, “Yes, my father got sick, but that doesn’t mean, as many say, that he shouldn’t have gone. I say the opposite, my father went there because he felt it was his duty to help those most in need, even if it meant putting his life at risk. … What makes us human is putting the common good above our personal well-being. It’s being capable of giving our all in order to help someone who needs a hand.”

That’s what was said by the son of a doctor who contracted Ebola, a man whose life hung in the balance at the time. And you all heard what Báez said to Dr. Pérez at the hospital where they were trying to save his life, when it was still not clear how he was going be affected by the illness.

Dr. Iván Rodríguez Terrero, interviewed for [the popular Cuban monthly magazine] La Calle del Medio [The street in the middle] by Ubieta when he was training at the Pedro Kourí Institute, said, “We knew this was a mission we were undertaking with no guarantee we would return. Your children feel the pain but are proud. Your wife is sad … but at the same time feels proud.”

The nurse and babalawo [santería priest] Orlando O’Farrill Martínez explained, “It was a mission for my country but I had to consult my orishas [gods of santería]. They gave me permission.”

That is, the orishas are with us. Not just [Russian Orthodox] Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis — the orishas, too.

When the Cuban personnel arrived, Monrovia, Liberia, was “a ghost town,” Ubieta said. Later the epidemic began to subside and the city began to revive as people returned.

Dr. Leonardo Fernández compares the Monrovia he saw on his arrival with the city as it was reborn, “We found a deserted city. There were hardly any cars or people in the streets, nobody around. … And now, we were just talking about that — man, what a difference! So we’re leaving with a little bit of pride: that I contributed something so this city could once again be filled with people.”

In Kerry Town, Sierra Leone, an Ebola Treatment Unit was set up where doctors and nurses from Cuba and other countries worked together.

Cuban brigade was heart of response
Andy Mason, the British director, said at the farewell for the Cuban brigade, “Here we were: Save the Children [a British NGO], the Cuban brigade, the British Department of Health … and our brothers and sisters of Sierra Leone. But at the center of the ability to respond was the Cuban brigade. They were the heart of the response here.”

“I’m confident,” he continued, “that our statistics will show … how the mortality rate has dropped. That wouldn’t have been possible without conscientious care for patients. And our Cuban colleagues were essential in that care.”

Forty-two brigade members were assigned to Maforki–Port Loko, also in Sierra Leone, Ubieta reports. “During the Cubans’ stay, 499 patients were cared for … and 132 lives were saved. ‘More than three lives saved for every volunteer,’ Dr. Manuel Seijas Glez proudly told me.” He’s here –– he was the coordinator of the Cuban team in that unit.

Dr. Rotceh Ríos Molina, head of the Cuban team in the Ebola Treatment Unit at the ADRA hospital in Waterloo, Sierra Leone, offered a balance sheet on the mission:

“First and foremost, it left me with the enormous satisfaction of having saved so many lives. …

“The second thing was our knowledge and competence, knowing we are international doctors. … You might hear about a doctor from Harvard, or one who works at this or that British clinic. But those people had nothing on us. We’re on the same level. Our professional training rivals the education any of those doctors from other countries receive.

“The third thing was the spirit of solidarity, of fellowship, of brotherhood. I think that’s what brought us all back here safe and sound, except for the two we lost.”

As you all know, those two cases were not from Ebola. They died from malaria.

This book provides an extraordinary balance sheet in ethical terms as well.

Leonardo Fernández, is he here? Dr. Leonardo Fernández, 63 years old, almost my generation. When I read that he’s a rock and roll fan I identified with him. We should get together in a Yellow Submarine! But anyway. …

Dr. Fernández has served in Nicaragua, Pakistan, East Timor, Haiti, and Mozambique. “When they say they need volunteers,” he said, “I raise my hand and then ask what for.”

‘We simply carried out our duty’
Regarding the fight against Ebola, he said, “The impact of the media coverage on this mission … has caused some of us … to see ourselves as heroes. In my opinion, we simply carried out a duty that corresponds to the moral values of the revolution and of medical practice. … I had heard about Ebola. I’m familiar with Africa, I’ve treated hemorrhagic fever in Mozambique, so I raised my hand and here I am. Nothing out of this world. It’s life,” he said, dismissing the idea that this heroic decision had any importance.

The matter-of-factness with which Dr. Fernández refers to his life of repeatedly proven service is something that comes up again and again in the accounts gathered by Ubieta. They are heroes, of course, worthy of the greatest admiration. But they tell of the most distressing experiences with modesty, without dwelling on details.

Dr. Rotceh Ríos Molina, who I mentioned earlier, said, “When we arrived in Sierra Leone on Oct. 9 [2014] and walked into an Ebola ward, it looked like a warehouse for the diseased, not a hospital. Many were lying on the floor, without any IV, without medication. We had to change the idea that you couldn’t touch the sick. We began to treat them, and more of the sick began to survive.”

Nurse Juan Carlos Curbelo, in that same unit at ADRA Waterloo, tells about “a pregnant woman diagnosed with Ebola who needed a transfusion. But the hospital didn’t have money to buy blood.” The Cubans took up a collection on the spot to buy it. Everyone gave what they could at the time.

“The chief nurse told us it was hopeless, that no matter what we did the woman was going to die. But we couldn’t stop ourselves from doing whatever we could to save her. After a few days the woman did die, but we felt at peace with our conscience,” that compañero says.

Another nurse, Víctor Lázaro Guerra, “the youngest member of the brigades serving in the three countries,” celebrated his 26th birthday during the mission. He told of “a child who urgently needed an IV and a transfusion. No member of his family wanted to donate blood, and they didn’t have money to pay for a transfusion. So we pulled together a little money … and we got a blood bag. Thanks to that we saved him.”

Ubieta briefly sums up all these heroes, “Without the special suits they are indistinguishable from other mortals. They touch death with their hands but they arrive telling jokes that ease things up for them, the sick, and colleagues from other countries. They’re afraid but they overcome it, even forget it and become fearless.”

They — you who are here today — have always had that important component of Cuba’s ability to resist: humor. And it couldn’t be otherwise. In many pages of Zona Roja, in the midst of the horrors of the epidemic, in the midst of death, there’s also a lot of kidding around, joking, Cuban laughter. Volunteers from rival provinces in baseball banter with each other. Some play music on a cellphone for patients who have been saved and are being discharged, and these patients dance with their saviors. Others tell of the trainers who were supposed to prepare them in Freetown but who were like fifth-degree black-belt karate experts who had never stepped onto the mat.

The ethical and moral conduct of the Cubans who confronted the Ebola epidemic presents a stark contrast in this degraded 21st century world. Their struggle, patient by patient, to defeat death and save defenseless human beings stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of immigrants who sail day after day toward the coasts of Europe only to be met by barbed-wire fences, walls, armed troops and the cruelest selfishness.

Today, when in the midst of all the daily difficulties we talk a lot about the decline of values among us, it’s good to remind ourselves of the feats recorded in Zona Roja. It’s not a book about ancient history. It doesn’t go back to the epic events of the 1960s. Those who took part in that mission are here and now in Cuba, some in this very room. Others are carrying out internationalist missions elsewhere.

Some are younger than 30, others 10 or 20 years older. Despite the advances and setbacks we’ve lived through, despite the shortcomings and contradictions, there is without doubt within them a foreshadowing of the “new man” that Che spoke about. They exemplify the purest ideals of the Cuban Revolution. Let our admiration and tribute reach them, and reach you who are among us.
Related articles:
‘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
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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