From Pakistan to Rotherham

Summer 2007

spreading the word on Cuba’s humanitarian work

When the head of Cuba’s emergency medical brigade accepted an invitation to tour the UK, CSC was determined that as many people as possible would get to hear about the awe inspiring work of Cuban health workers around the world.

During twenty days in June, Dr Carlos Dupuy Nunez, undertook a marathon tour of England stretching across 11 towns and cities from Bournemouth to Newcastle and Rochdale to Swindon, encompassing 34 public and professional meetings and press interviews, addressing more than 3,000 people, and reaching new audiences and communities.

As head of the 2,400 strong team of Cuban volunteers that made up the Henry Reeve emergency medical brigade, Carlos spent seven months working in Pakistan following the devastating 2005 earthquake.

This work featured in one of the films on the CSC ‘Made in Cuba’ DVD (see CubaSi Spring 2007) and was shown at many of the meetings where he spoke.

At the annual conference public and health workers union Unison who sponsored the DVD, 1,400 copies were distributed to delegates and Carlos to was invited to address delegates where he received a standing ovation. Pledges from delegates to show the film at public meetings from delegates will hopefully ensure the news of Cuba’s international brigades reaches an even wider audience.

As part of his programme, Carlos addressed 10 public meetings, four union fringe meetings and several meetings with representatives from the Pakistan community, including leaders in Rochdale and Rotherham who had witnessed the work of Cuban medical teams when visiting family and friends in Pakistan.

Professional exchanges took place during visits to GPs surgeries in Swindon and Manchester, hospitals in Manchester, Derby and Birmingham, and an NHS Walk In Centre in Wythenshaw. Carlos was also privileged to address the first joint international meeting London Region Unison and the Royal College of Nursing.

The mainstream media’s silence on Cuba’s international work was broken with both BBC’s Asian Network and World Service running interviews with Carlos, and several local and national journalists conducting interviews and running stories too.

Colin Burgon MP accompanied Carlos to a meeting with Department for International Development Minister, Gareth Thomas, who was keen to hear about Cuba’s work training doctors and nurses in Africa, much of which he was previously unaware.

An enormous thank you to all the individuals, CSC local groups, health professionals, journalists, councilors, MPs, community leaders, union representatives and officials who made this tour a success.

Help to spread the word

If you’d like to show the film about the work of Cuba’s medical brigades in Pakistan to a group or organization you are involved in please contact the CSC for details on or 0207 263 6452.

INTERVIEW: Dr JUAN CARLOS DUPUY NUNEZ talks about his experiences as head of Cuba’s international emergency medical team. By Richard Bagley, first published in the Morning Star

DR Juan Carlos Dupuy Nunez is a happy man. It’s not because it’s his first time in London and he’s had great fun hitting the capital’s tourist spots.

No, as we talk in the foyer of his hotel, the first thing that he wants to express is his gratitude and surprise at the support which progressives the length and breadth of the country have given to his homeland Cuba.

Dr Dupuy, at 40 years old, is a well-travelled individual, but the many countries which he has visited over the years are as far away from the well-trodden tourist traps as you could imagine.

Now the man in charge of Cuba’s 1,500-strong international emergency medical brigade, his chosen career has taken him to some of the most impoverished countries in the world, including war-ravaged Eritrea and, most recently a seven-month stint in Pakistan following the devastating earthquake there in late 2005.

However, this is nothing unusual, since medical ability is one of Cuba’s most significant exports.

Dr Dupuy shows me the 2006 figures, which make startling reading. There were 32,187 doctors working abroad in 72 countries. In all, Cuban medical staff have been sent to over 100 countries since 1963, when his country itself was still trying to recover from decades of US-backed gangster rule.

But why does a tiny country like Cuba, population 11 million, send doctors abroad and, in Pakistan’s case, to help a country that is a key US ally in the “war on terror?”

“It is not for glory, it is not for material wealth, but for solidarity,” comments Dr Dupuy.

He points out that, while his country may not be rich in material wealth - GDP stands at $3,900 per capita - it has a sterling asset in its people and the socialist structure of its society.

“Our Cuban health system is free, universal and comprehensive, but is also based on internationalist principles,” says Dr Dupuy.

He recalls that, when he first applied to medical college, he was handed a form asking the question: “Do you feel able to give your services for free to any people in the world?” He answer was swift. “Yes.”

The doctor explains: “When you grow up in this kind of society, you feel like that. It’s the real truth. That’s why, with only 11 million people, we are able to send so many people abroad.”

The same ethic of solidarity was behind the establishment of the emergency international medical brigade which the he now heads. Many of its members have served abroad in the regular medical detachments, but its role is specifically to provide a rapid response to disasters worldwide.

Named the Henry Reeve brigade in honour of a New York citizen who fought to free Cuba from colonial rule in the 19th century, Dr Dupuy explains that it came into being following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina along the US coast in August 2005.

He was at home in the central city of Santa Clara when news of the disaster broke.

“I received a call. The Ministry of Health asked: ‘Are you aware of the situation? Would you like to go and help the American people?”

“One thousand five hundred doctors volunteered to go without pay,” recalls Dr Dupuy.

Cuban President Fidel Castro sent condolences and offered medical assistance. It was refused.

“It was very frustrating,” says the doctor. “We knew that people were suffering, dying or would die and we were there with medicine and skills, yet unable to do anything. All because of the stupid policy of the government.

“The American people wanted us to go. They needed our help,” says Dr Dupuy.

The rest, as they say, is history. As the people of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves and the 1,500 Cuban medical professionals were left frustrated.

But they were soon to be called into action. When violent storms hit the impoverished Latin American state of Guatemala in September, the newly established brigade was handed its first assignment.

Seven hundred doctors were sent to help the country, where 12 out of 22 states were hit by flooding and mudslides and associated disease.

Then, in October, news arrived that Pakistan had been hit by a tremendous earthquake that had affected 3,000 square kilometres.

With winter fast approaching, Cuba joined the massive international effort to prevent thousands of deaths. It was the biggest challenge that the doctors in the Henry Reeves brigade had ever faced.

“Six days after the quake hit, we had 86 doctors there,” says Dr Dupuy proudly.

Within weeks, that figure had mushroomed to 2,500. The Cubans set up 32 field hospitals packed with high-tech equipment, as well as working alongside medical staff from other countries, establishing a 600-bed health network.

The aid effort was successful. Dr Dupuy explains that disasters have a distinct pattern. There is an initial wave of casualties when disaster first strikes. Then, there is a second wave as epidemics hit.

Showing me the figures, it is clear that, together with the cool weather, the relief effort ensured that the second wave was avoided almost completely.

Cuba was only one of many countries that responded to the disaster, but the doctor points out one key difference in its contribution.

“After two months, a lot of the organisations left. We kept working there.”

In fact, they stayed for seven months in all, treating a staggering number of 1.74 million patients - 73 per cent of the total - for everything from missing limbs and major surgery to childbirth and minor ailments.

“Thanks to Allah for sending you,” said one Pakistani man, adding: “But please say thanks to Fidel Castro.”

And the Cuban legacy lives on. “We donated everything on condition that they kept them open,” says Dr Dupuy, adding that that included all their high-tech equipment such as ultrasound and x-ray machines.

As for the Cubans involved in the relief effort, the doctor concedes that there were times when they asked themselves

why they had come.

“Everyone had the same answer. ‘We are doctors’,” he says.

“All the Cuban doctors and paramedics that participated in this task are now better doctors and better human beings.”

He adds: “Every time we go abroad, we see the poor health systems that they have. They are trying to do their best, but it is very difficult.

“Every time I go and come back, I love my country more.”

An unabridged version of this interview is available at

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