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Politics & Embargo

Cuba’s Medical Diplomacy ¡Salud!

By Conner Gorry / Posted January 9, 2012

Doctors for export; altruism; humanism; or plain old politics; whatever you call it, Cuba’s massive international health program helps the bottom billion. These are the world’s poorest and most desperate, to whom prevention, simple interventions, or vaccines can mean the difference between life and death.

Unfortunately, millions of the bottom billion don’t have access to even basic care. In many cases, there’s simply no one to administer it, aggravating a worldwide crisis that is reaching disastrous proportions. According to the World Health Organization, the global shortage of doctors, nurses, and midwives is a critical 2.4 million.

Enter Cuba’s with its Herculean effort–30,000 health professionals volunteering in over 60 poor countries and 20,000 doctors from the Third World slated to graduate form the island’s medical school by 2015. How can such a small, poor, and isolated country do it?

The new documentary ¡Salud! tackles the complicated subject. The sticky wicket of global health was new territory for Academy Award–nominated Director Connie Field (Rosie the Riveter; Freedom on My Mind), who traipsed through Venezuela’s barrios, the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, rural Gambia, South African townships, and Cuba, to capture the ¡Salud! story.

There is nothing pedantic about this film. Rather, Field and company sit back, letting viewers experience the Cuban program through heartfelt stories told by the patients and doctors throughout the different countries.

There’s Luisito’s mom, a young mother from rural Cuba confronting her son’s second operation for a congenital heart defect. In Gambia, Dr Joel Marzo is reduced to tears describing what it’s like to have a child die in his arms–something he never experienced at home, where under 5 mortality is 7 per 1,000 live births. Meanwhile, in the Venezuelan slums, spitfire Vanessa Hernández inspires with her decision to become a doctor when her son, in mid–cardiac arrest, is refused medical care at a Caracas hospital until she makes a scene.

But ¡Salud! touches on the dark side of Cuban cooperation as well. Dr Rolando Ortiz talks about the very real danger of contracting HIV as head of the Cuban medical team in Lusikisiki South Africa, while Dr Nancy Suárez in Gambia explains how she’s missing her daughter blossom into a young woman.

There are Cuban officials discussing the desertion rate (an absurdly low 2% overall), juxtaposed against a Cuban doctor who jumped ship in South Africa and now lives in a McMansion in a Johannesburg suburb.

Cuban ingenuity and spunk run throughout ¡Salud! and distinguish the whole program for Co–Producer Gail Reed. “These people are doing something incredibly difficult, making unbelievable personal sacrifices, but they approach it with such good humor… I suppose because they feel like they’re making a difference, but also because that’s just the way Cubans are.”

¡Salud! is full of such opinions, coming from all corners. Even US health experts weigh in on Cuban biotechnology, the country’s prevention–based results, and the quality of the medical education. Indeed, nine doctors from underserved US communities have already graduated from Cuba’s Latin American Medical School.

Conner Gorry

Author of over a dozen Lonely Planet guides, freelance writer Conner Gorry's first foreign adventure was to Vieques at age 8. Conner currently calls Havana home, where she smokes a daily cigar and works as a journalist and editor for MEDICC Review, Cuba Health Reports, Cuba Absolutely, and other publications. For more stories by Conner read her blog at http://hereishavana.wordpress.com/about/