Cuba creates a permanent 1,500-strong disaster brigade

Campaign News | Monday, 19 September 2005

Still no US reply to offer of 1,600 doctors

Havana, Sept 19: Cuba has officially created a 1,586-strong international medical contingent against disasters and serious epidemics that will be prepared to cooperate in any nation of the world.

Under the name of Henry Reeve, a US citizen who died while fighting for Cuban independence, the internationalist brigade will replace the one created to help US victims of Hurricane Katrina.

That medical contingent continues preparing although the Bush government has still made no statement on the Cuban proposal.

US yet to address Katrina offer

HAVANA Sept 13: - The United States has still not responded to Cuba's offer of 1,600 doctors to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, Cuba said Tuesday.

The response "has yet to arrive, and may never come," said a front-page government statement in Granma, the ruling Communist Party daily.

Cuba has for decades invested heavily in training doctors, sending them to African and Latin American nations. Since the powerful Aug. 29 storm, President Fidel Castro has repeatedly offered doctors to aid Katrina relief operations.

The US State Department said last week the Cuban offer was not needed because enough American doctors had offered their services, but added that all options would be considered.

Washington has branded Cuba one of the world's few remaining "outposts of tyranny" in a league with Myanmar, Belarus and Zimbabwe.,1280,-5275772,00.html

Doctors urge US to accept Cuba's offer of 1586 doctors

ATLANTA, Sept. 7 - A prominent US medical group voiced "deep concern" over delays in health care and epidemic prevention reaching Katrina victims, and urged US authorities to accept Cuba's offer of 1586 disaster-trained physicians to prevent a "second wave of sickness and death."

Latest reports indicate the U.S. State Department is backing away from the offer, implying they are not needed.

"Up to this point, there been a clear need for more medical help for Katrina victims," said Peter Bourne, MD, Chairman of MEDICC and former special adviser on health in the Carter White House and former Assistant Secretary General at the United Nations. "The Cuban physicians are accustomed to working in difficult third-world conditions without the resources and supplies most of us are accustomed to. Since they are just an hour away, it is a shame that they have not been allowed to join our committed medical corps already."

He is joined by other physicians, medical educators, international health experts and a former U.S. surgeon general associated with MEDICC, Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba. From 1998 through 2004, MEDICC has provided

medical electives in Cuba for nearly 1000 students and faculty from 118 U.S.

medical, public health and nursing schools.

"Cuba has been recognized by the UN, Oxfam and other international organizations as a leader in disaster response, expertise that could be saving

lives now," said Doctor William Keck, former long-time director of the Akron, Ohio Department of Public Health.

A 2004 Oxfam Report, Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba, states that there are real lessons to be learned from Cuba on how to safeguard lives during extreme natural disasters, including getting medical

attention to vulnerable populations. The report can be found at

On Tuesday, August 30, Cuba first offered U.S. authorities hurricane relief in the form of 1100 disaster-trained bilingual physicians, each equipped with 52-pound pound backpacks of medical supplies, including rehydration therapy, insulin, anti-hypertensives, and medications for systemic and topical infections.

On Saturday, September 3, Cuba increased the offer to 1586 doctors, ready for immediate deployment and prepared to stay as long as necessary to help wherever needed. A Cuban spokesperson said that as of today there has been no official response from the U.S. government.

Cuban disaster relief experience spans 45 years, mainly in hurricanes faced by the Caribbean island and in coping with disasters confronted by other developing countries. Another nearly 25,000 Cuban health professionals provide longer-term health care services in 68 countries, under government-to-government agreements.

Cuba trains 10,500 medical students from 27 countries at its Latin American Medical School -65 of them from poor and minority communities in

the USA. (See The New England Journal of Medicine, 2004; 351:2680-82.)

"What an irony that the first U.S. MD to graduate from the school this August is a young African American from New Orleans," said Diane Appelbaum, RN, NP, MS. "He just passed the U.S. medical boards and is eager to fulfill

the commitment he made in exchange for his free education from Cuba to serve the very poverty-stricken areas now devastated."

For additional first-hand reports and interviews from Cuba, please see MEDICC's on-line journal, MEDICC Review at , Archives, Vol VI, No. 3, 2004 Disaster Management in Cuba: Reducing the Risk.

MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba) is a non-profitorganization based in Atlanta. MEDICC is committed to maintaining

institutional and educational links between the U.S. and Cuban medical communities. MEDICC publishes the English-language journal MEDICC Review, reporting on Cuba's medical and public health programs, available at

CONTACT: Diane Appelbaum, RN, NP, MS

US Director, MEDICC

(678) 904-8090

US balks at Cuba's offer of doctors for hurricane victims

September 7, WASHINGTON - U.S. officials on Tuesday were noncommittal about an offer by Cuba to send nearly 1,600 doctors to the southern United States to treat the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"In terms of Cuba, I understand that there has been an offer of medical personnel - I think it is an offer, along with some other offers of medical personnel, that we will continue to take a look at," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

But McCormack added that there has been a "robust" response from the U.S. medical community to help the hurricane victims.

When asked about Cuba's offer, the spokesman said: "I understand that there are numerous offers and there are a lot of countries that want to help. And the process by which we arrive at what we need and what's needed out on the field, that's done by experts."

"The criterion that we're using here is, 'What are the needs?' and matching needs with capabilities and offers of assistance," he said.

Cuban President Fidel Castro has offered to send 1,586 doctors and 34 tons of medicine to the United States. Castro often deploys his doctors around the world.

Cuba reiterates medical aid offer to the United States

Havana 5 Sept: PRESIDENT Fidel Castro last night reiterated Cuba’s disposition to help Hurricane Katrina victims in spite of the silence of Washington regarding Cuba’s aid offer.

Fidel met on Sunday evening with 1,586 doctors toting backpacks filled with medicine and essential equipment for treating people in emergency conditions like those in the region lashed by the hurricane in the neighboring country.

The president said that Cuba had fulfilled its commitment, confirmed by the rapid constitution of the medical force to aid those affected by Katrina in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

He noted that because of its proximity to the affected areas, it was possible for Cuba to send 1,100 doctors to save people in danger of dying, but the number of those called up had risen to 1,586.

"Forty-eight hours have passed, and we have not received any response to our offer," he noted. "We will wait patiently for as long as it takes," he added.

If no response arrives, or if Cuba’s cooperation were not necessary, it would not be any cause for discouragement among our ranks, he added.

"Very much on the contrary, we would be satisfied that we had fulfilled our duty, and extremely happy to know that not one more U.S. citizen out of those who suffered the painful and treacherous blow of Hurricane Katrina would die without medical attention, if that were to be the cause for our doctors’ absence," he affirmed.

During the meeting, and at the proposal of Fidel, the group of doctors was named the Henry Reeve Medical Brigade, in honor of a man from the United States who gave his life during the first Cuban Independence War against the Spanish colonial power.

The Cuban president stated that in this kind of situation, it didn’t matter how rich a country might be, or the number of its scientists or technical advances. "What is required at this moment is a team of young, well-trained professionals who, with a minimum of resources, can be sent where human beings are in danger of dying."

He affirmed that in the case of Cuba, being geographically close to the affected areas, the circumstances were appropriate for offering aid to the U.S. people.

He explained that each one of the doctors was equipped with two backpacks full of medicines and essential equipment for diagnosing and treating many different diseases.

Cuba has more than 130,000 health professionals, he noted, of whom more than 25,000 are on international missions in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Killer Katrina: Cuba offers help to US

Havana 3rd Sept: Cuban President Fidel Castro announced in a live television broadcast on Friday that he had issued a second offer to the United States to send 1,100 Cuban doctors to help care for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Castro said the first 100 doctors were ready to travel as early as Friday night to Houston, Texas, where many of the hurricane victims have been evacuated.

The Cuban leader said his government was hoping for a rapid response to the offer.

Castro said a diplomatic note containing the offer was sent late on Friday afternoon to the US Interests Section, the American mission in Havana, and was the second such offer of its kind made this week.

Castro said the first offer of Cuban doctors for hurricane relief efforts was made during a meeting with Cuban foreign ministry and US officials in Havana on Tuesday, days before the extent of the hurricane's catastrophic damage was known.

At the time, US officials had asked Cuban authorities not to publicise their offer of aid, said Castro.

But Castro indicated the deepening of the human suffering in New Orleans and other US Gulf Coast cities had compelled him to repeat the offer.

Currently, there are tens of thousands of Cuban doctors working on goodwill missions in developing nations, especially in Venezuela and Haiti, as well as in Africa. (AP)

One minute of silence in Cuba for Katrina victims

HAVANA, 1st Sept - Cuba's parliament, led by President Fidel Castro, set aside politics momentarily on Thursday and stood for one minute in silent homage to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"The whole world should feel that this tragedy is its own," National Assembly speaker Ricardo Alarcon said.

Heavy rainfall lashed western Cuba and downed power lines when Katrina swung across Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico, but the island escaped the devastation seen in the United States.

"The news pained and saddened Cubans. In their name, we wish to express our profound solidarity with the people of the United States, state and local authorities and the victims of this catastrophe," Alarcon added.

Castro, stood with his head down for the minute of silence.

Alarcon said devastation in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama was the most costly natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Poor, mainly black Americans were the hardest hit by Katrina in the number of deaths and homes lost, he said.

The 600-member parliament then unanimously passed a resolution attacking US President George W. Bush for massacring Iraqis and harbouring extremist Cuban exiles.

The resolution urged Washington to extradite Cuban-born ex-CIA operative Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela to stand trial for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner.

It also called on the United States to free five Cuban men jailed seven years ago for spying on the anti-Castro exile community in Florida.

A US appeals court overturned their convictions on Aug. 9 and ordered new trials, saying pervasive prejudice against the Cuban government had prevented them from getting a fair trial in Miami. The Cubans are being held in jail pending retrial.

Socialism and storms

Cuba's success in minimising loss of life during Hurricane Michelle highlights the social dimension of coping with natural disasters

Dr Ben Wisner

Wednesday November 14, 2001

The Guardian

Hurricane Michelle was a category 3 storm. It hit land at the Bay of Pigs on Cuba's southern coast, where the ill-fated CIA-backed invasion failed decades ago, with winds of 216km/hr. The storm travelled north across the island, damaging 22,400 homes and destroying 2,800. It damaged agriculture, industry and infrastructure in five provinces in the western half of the island, as well as Havana. It was the worst hurricane to hit Cuba since 1944.

But only five deaths have so far been reported: four from the collapse of structures and one drowning. By contrast, when Michelle traveled through Central America in a weaker form, 10 people died and another 26 are listed as missing. More than 10,000 lives were lost in Central America during hurricane Mitch, a disaster whose fatal effects could have been largely prevented.

How did Cuba save lives? The most important factor seems to be timely evacuation. Roughly 700,000 people were evacuated out of Cuba's 11m population. This is quite a feat given Cuba's dilapidated fleet of vehicles, fuel shortage and poor road system. It was possible only because of advance preparations and planning, a cadre of local personnel, trust in warnings given and cooperation with the Red Cross.

In Havana the electricity was turned off to avoid deaths or injuries from electrocution, and the tap water supply was turned off in case of possible contamination. Reports say that Havana's population was advised to store water and food, and that they largely complied. They also helped clear debris which could have become dangerous if lifted by strong winds from streets. Cuban state television broadcasts included references to the 1932 hurricane that had killed more than 3,000.

These preparations point to an effective risk communication system, a historical memory of past disasters actively encouraged by the authorities, neighbourhood-based organisations capable of mobilising labour and trust on the part of the general population.

Havana is a city of 2m with a history of deaths due to hurricanes. In 1844, 500 lost their lives in Havana. In 1866 the death toll in the city was 600 and in 1944 there were 330 fatalities and 269 collapsed buildings. But 2001 was not the first time that preparations had saved lives. In 1996 some historic buildings were destroyed due to hurricane Lili, but no one died.

Does socialism help? In 1978 I published a letter in the journal Disasters calling for a systematic comparison of socialist and non-socialist countries' success in mitigating the human impacts of extreme natural events. I contrasted the small loss of life from drowning or subsequent disease during large floods in the Red river delta of Vietnam with the estimated huge loss of life calculated by the US military planners when they were preparing to bomb the Red river's levees and dikes. I suggested researchers look carefully at preparedness, mitigation and recovery in socialist countries such as China, Cuba, the USSR, Somalia and Mozambique.

Today three of these countries no longer claim to be socialist; indeed, Somalia is arguably still without a viable central government following years of civil war, and some consider Mozambique to be a ward of overseas donors. I still believe that my 1978 question is relevant to disas ter research. It is not ideological but practical. If further systematic comparative study shows that public expenditure on human needs (healthcare, education, public housing, utility subsidies for low income people) and infrastructure does save lives in extreme events, this is an important finding. I don't care whether it's called socialism or good governance. Comparisons shouldn't necessarily be among so-called communist states (contemporary or historical studies) and so-called capitalist ones. Indeed, city by city comparisons might also be very revealing. The ideological orientation of the national government may not be the most important factor.

The systematic study would require a careful and precise definition of the elements one is looking for. These are mostly likely to include self-help and citizen-based social protection at the neighbourhood level, trust between the authorities and the population, investment in basic needs and social capital such as the training of neighbourhood activists, investment in capable and transparently operating government institutions for prevention and mitigation of disaster risk, investment in scientific capacity such as Havana's weather institute and public health services, an effective risk communication system and institutionalised historical memory of disasters.

Cuba may not have all of these and it may not be socialism that has provided Cuba with the ability to save lives in hurricanes. It may be more complicated than that. I'd hypothesise that more people die of hypothermia each year in Scotland than in Finland as rate of population in an age group. This is not because Finland is socialist, but because of the kinds of public spending priorities in Finland associated with European social-democracy rather than the minimalist welfare apparatus left in Britain since the assault on the welfare state began in the early 80s.

Whatever the reasons, Cuba has lessons for the rest of us. What a shame it is officially excluded from the Organisation of American States, and will not be represented at the upcoming Hemispheric Disaster Risk Reduction conference, where experts from the other states will talk about how to save lives.

Dr Ben Wisner is a disaster expert from Oberlin College, Ohio, and a visiting research fellow at the Development Studies Institute, LSE.

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