Cuban doctors stay in Haiti when all else have fled
Campaign News | Thursday, 11 March 2004
Volunteers keep one emergency room open
March 11: At the height of the bloody revolt in Haiti, all the hospitals and clinics in the capital closed but one, a makeshift emergency room operated entirely by Cuban doctors.
“We're here to help the people," says Juan Carlos Chavez, chief of a 535-person Cuban medical brigade in Haiti. "We don't take sides. We don't get mixed up in politics."
Haitian patients treated by Cubans in Port-au-Prince said they were grateful to find doctors who endured the bedlam that erupted after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted on 29th February.
"I don't know what I would have done without these Cuban doctors," said Parnel Gilbert, 52, a man being treated for an infection that had eaten away the skin of his feet. "I'm very happy."
The violence peaked after Aristide fled. Haitian hospitals were shut down. Doctors without Borders and other aid groups stopped work, saying it was too dangerous to continue.
But the Cubans stayed and cared for patients despite the threat. They cleared out a large storeroom, cleaned the floors and brought in a half dozen cots. Soon the patients started arriving, many bleeding, limping and near collapse.
There were 22 gunshot victims on Feb. 29 and March 1 alone. And as the week progressed, Cuban doctors treated more than 100 people, Chavez said.
Looters rushed the hospital grounds at one point and stole six cars and trucks, but they left the Cuban doctors alone.
"The people have always protected us," Chavez said. "We're here to take care of people's health."
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque says Cuban doctors are posted throughout Haiti, providing health care to 75 percent of the nation's 8.3 million people.
"To have an idea of how significant their work is, one should be aware that Haiti has less than 2,000 doctors and almost 90 percent of them are ... in the capital," Perez told a gathering of Caribbean diplomats on 12th February.
Over the past five years, Cuban doctors have treated nearly 5 million Haitians, assisted with about 45,000 births and performed 59,000 operations.
Cuban officials estimate their doctors have saved nearly 86,000 lives and reduced Haiti's infant mortality rate.