Category: The South

FROM THE SOUTH will gather the stories and issues taking place in Latin American, and we will give you the analysis and opinion to understand the regional context.


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Subject: News

The power of Cuba’s free healthcare

By: Belen Fernandez/Aljazeera/July 27, 2012

In 1995, Nelson Mandela declared with regard to Cuban international solidarity missions to Africa over past decades:

“Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonisers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment and apartheid.”

The US, of course, had offered a less favourable characterisation of Cuban activities on the African continent, and accused the island nation of exporting revolution. Evidence of diabolical Cuban meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign nations included its substantial assistance in defending newly independent Angola against a US-backed South African invasion that – according to Noam Chomsky – ultimately killed a million and a half people in Angola and Mozambique.

As for more subtly packaged revolutionary exports, the New York Times reported in 2009 that, “[i]n the 50 years since the revolution, Cuba has sent more than 185,000 health professionals on medical missions to at least 103 countries”.

While hysteria-prone sectors of the global population have determined that Cuban-inspired health care programmes in Venezuela are merely a front for terrorist training operations, the Times managed to limit itself to citing a Cuban medical presence of 31,000 in the South American country. It also referred to medical endeavours abroad as “a crowning achievement of Cuban foreign policy” – albeit one that was being “effectively… turned on its head” by the curiously titled Cuban Medical Professional Parole Programme.

A joint initiative between the US Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, the parole programme for non-criminals encourages Cuban health care workers deployed internationally to defect to the US, thereby neutralising an apparent PR coup by the Castro regime.

Of course, even if we assume that Cuban medical deployments are nothing but a politically motivated ploy to secure international support via a facade of humane charitableness, it is not difficult to figure out which of the following two scenarios is objectively less harmful to humanity: a facade of humane charitableness that results in free health care for countless numbers of people across the globe who would not otherwise have access to it, or a facade of democracy promotion that has thus far resulted in over a million deaths in Iraq alone since 2003.

Indeed, as a Cuban doctor named Yamile remarked to me at a Barrio Adentro (“Inside the Neighborhood”) health clinic on Venezuela’s Margarita Island in 2009: “We also fight in war zones, but to save lives.”

Yankees welcome

Barrio Adentro, a collaborative effort between Cuba and the Hugo Chávez administration that began in 2003, is a nationwide system offering health care free of charge to all Venezuelans. According to Steve Brouwer’s book Revolutionary Doctors: How Venezuela and Cuba are Changing the World’s Conception of Health Care, it includes nearly 7000 walk-in offices and more than 500 larger diagnostic clinics.

Visiting some of these during a month-long excursion to the country, I was pleased to discover that the system did not discriminate against imperial citizens from the north. Though there was nothing detectably wrong with me, the Cuban and Venezuelan Barrio Adentro personnel graciously accommodated my requests for ultrasounds of various parts of my body, and Yamile donated a free packet of mind-altering allergy pills to my traveling companion. The walls of the clinics were generally festooned with alarming political propaganda such as handmade calendars denoting the birthdays of staff members, Chávez and Fidel Castro.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the Cubans – that a national of the country presiding over the embargo that has historically prevented Cuban acquisition of medicines and equipment had now ended up the recipient of gratuitous ultrasounds courtesy of Cuba. In a more severe case of irony resulting from the unconditional dispensation of health care, it was revealed in 2007 that Cuban doctors in Bolivia had performed free cataract surgery on the man who killed Che Guevara.

Yamile, who hailed from the province of Guantánamo, had just signed a 10-year contract in Venezuela following deployments to Angola, Zimbabwe and Guyana. Though she acknowledged the hardships of separation from her four children and the low salary relative to local standards, she insisted that it was her duty to assist the Venezuelans in developing their revolutionary potential. It is this sort of rhetoric that underscores the judiciousness of George Bush’s 2005 rejection of Cuba’s offer of medical aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Cuba sets sights on colony in Haiti

Having failed to export the revolution to Louisiana, Cuba’s elite Henry Reeve medical brigade spent seven months fomenting communist insurrection in Kashmir under cover of earthquake relief. As Brouwer notes: “Before they departed, they trained 450 Pakistani doctors in the procedures necessary to operate the [medical] equipment and field hospitals they left behind”.

As for the brigade’s contributions to earthquake relief in Haiti in 2010 – largely excised from news reports on the event – Brouwer asserts that, over the same seven-week period in which the staff of the US Navy’s USNS Comfort treated 871 patients and performed 843 operations, the Cuban medical teams treated 227,443 and performed 6,499.

There are numerous other telling bits of trivia in Revolutionary Doctors. For example, we learn that the Cuban Naval Academy was spontaneously converted into the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in 1998 to provide free education to students from dozens of other countries. We later learn of a reverse conversion during the US-orchestrated coup against Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, when “[t]he US Marines overran the new [Cuban-staffed] Aristide medical school, chased out the doctors and students, and used the facility as their military headquarters”.

Though seemingly unrelated, these two instances might be seen as symbolic of opposing approaches to existence, especially when juxtaposed with a 2007 article in the Washington Post reporting the American Friends Service Committee’s calculation that the money spent by the US on a single day of war in Iraq would fund health care for 423,529 children.

One could also contend that devising 638 ways to assassinate Castro – such as by placing brightly-decorated, explosives-rigged molluscs along the Cuban coast in the hopes that he would be drawn to them while scuba diving – was perhaps not an overly practical use of US resources.

Health care as dangerous freedom

A December 2010 article by Nina Lakhani in the British Independent describes the domestic effects of Cuba’s “prevention-focused holistic model” of health care:

This model has helped Cuba to achieve some of the world’s most enviable health improvements, despite spending only $400 (£260) per person last year compared with $3,000 (£1,950) in the UK and $7,500 (£4,900) in the US, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures.

Infant mortality rates, one of the most reliable measures of a nation’s healthcare, are 4.8 per 1,000 live births – comparable with Britain and lower than the US. Only 5 per cent of babies are born with a low birth weight, a crucial factor in long-term health, and maternal mortality is the lowest in Latin America, World Health Organisation figures show”. 

Lakhani also notes that “[a] third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries” but that “this still leaves one doctor for every 220 people at home, one of the highest ratios in the world”.

Former World Health Organisation director-general Halfdan Mahler has declared that “[n]o other country has been as consistent in taking measures towards achieving the goal of ‘Health for All’ as Cuba”, while the New York Times has acknowledged that “many expatriate [Cuban] doctors say their dealings with patients in Cuba were more humane and less rushed than they are in the United States”.

Given this reality, it is impossible not to bash one’s head against the wall when confronted with US proponents of the notion that health care as a right rather than a commodity constitutes an unparalleled horror that must be combated at all cost. The danger, of course, is that human health will one day supersede corporate health in importance, an eventuality that has most recently been staved off with the passage of the Affordable Care Act – summarised as follows by Harvard Medical School’s Marcia Angell in The New York Review of Books:

“[The act] requires people to buy a commercial product from investor-owned companies at whatever price the companies choose to charge. In short, people are required to contribute to the profits and corporate salaries and marketing costs of companies like WellPoint and United Health Care”.

Brouwer meanwhile concludes with regard to the US health care system:

“The fact that this very wealthy country is willing to deny the opportunities that could effectively deliver health care to its own people, while also sabotaging the efforts of poorer nations to build new kinds of public primary care medical systems, is one of the great scandals of twenty-first-century capitalism”.

Though it is crucial to avoid romanticising Cuban and Venezuelan political systems, which naturally contain their own repressive aspects, it’s totally healthy to romanticise what Brouwer describes as Che’s “original aspiration – combining the humanitarian mission of medicine with the creation of a just society“.



Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

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Indigenous Colombians: ‘We’re the ones dying’

By: Inside Story America/Aljazeera English/July 18, 2012

Indigenous people in Colombia’s southwestern region of Cauca say they have had enough of being caught in the middle of the country’s long-running civil conflict.

Their leaders want government troops and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s biggest rebel group, to go away and leave them in peace.

The region has been the centre of conflict for years, and it has seen several violent incidents due to fighting between the FARC and government troops.

On Wednesday, they jeered Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, as he visited their war-ravaged region.

“The mass media are framing it as if the indigenous movement is being manipulated by the FARC so that they can … probably get a shipment of cocaine out on one of the corridors to the export area in the Pacific coast …. What they’re saying is that you can fight the FARC and the FARC can fight the army on our territory but please don’t settle on our territory because that is a major problem for us.”

– Bernardo Perez Salazar, a researcher of armed conflict and the peace process in Colombia

But Santos told residents in the town of Toribio that he would not order the military to quit the nine towns that the indigenous Nasa community leaders want the military to vacate. “The government and the

The FARC has been fighting a succession of Colombian governments for nearly half a century, claiming it is fighting for more equal distribution of land.

The town of Toribio, in particular, has been hit over 500 times in the last 10 years.

And when a fresh round of violence broke out again last week, killing three people, injuring dozens of others and destroying many homes, the indigenous people decided to act.

They are rebelling against all armed groups in the region, both the Colombian military and the FARC.

A decade ago the central government militarised Cauca, positioning many soldiers outside and inside of the Toribio, which brought many more attacks. And the people got caught in the crossfire.

Part of the indigenous culture is really linked to the land so people are finally saying … not only are we going to stay on our lands, these are our lands and we don’t want you here. So they’ve really given an ultimatum to both the FARC and the army that they should leave, that they don’t rely on the state for their security, that they will provide their own security … and so it’s come to a bit of a confrontation and it’s very polarised right now

– Virginia Bouvier, senior programme officer for Latin America at the United States Institute of Peace

The indigenous population say that it is their ancestrol land, recognised by the Colombian government. But it is also a FARC stronghold and a very important corridor for trafficking to the Pacific coast.

So achieving what indigenous people want to do, which is throwing out all the armed forces from their region, will be extremely difficult. But they do think this is their best hope for peace in 40 years.

So how likely is it that the indigenous community in Colombia will be successful in making the army and FARC leave their region?

“We just want our land back. It’s ours. We don’t want to fight against the army but they’ve made our life impossible. We can’t continue putting our head down, it’s time to act but in a peaceful way. We’re just asking them to leave our territory, we don’t want them here any more.”

An indigenous village

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Mexico’s student protesters weigh next moves

By: Valeria Perasso/BBC Mundo/July 18, 2012

During Mexico’s presidential election, a group of university students voiced their frustration at what they saw as biased media coverage. Their movement, born on social media and known as #YoSoy132 (I am 132), shook up a staid campaign – but what now for the protesters?

“Turn off the stupid TV, turn on the truth,” was the call as students marched in their thousands in the Mexican capital and other towns and cities in May and June.

The target of their anger was a supposed alliance between the country’s biggest media outlet, Televisa, and Enrique Pena Nieto, front-runner and candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for much of the 20th Century.

The students’ rage at what they saw as unfair media coverage widened to include allegations of vote-buying and other irregularities during the election itself.

Mexico is now awaiting a ruling by the electoral court on the validity of the 1 July election, which was won by Mr Pena Nieto.

At the same time, members of the #YoSoyy132 movement are deliberating their group’s future course.

Broader goals

Some of its leading members see the need for reorganisation.

“We already know what we want in the long term – to awaken society’s political consciousness and to democratise the media. We now need to figure out how, and in order to define that we have been working in student assemblies,” says student Ari Santillan in Mexico City.

The movement held its first national assembly days after the election, aware the next steps would be crucial for its political survival.

Birth of a movement

On 10 May, 131 students heckled Mr Pena Nieto during an event at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City.

Members of the PRI said they were outside political agitators. In response, the 131 posted a video on the internet showing their student ID cards.

The movement was born, with people spreading the message on Twitter with the hashtag #YoSoy132.

Thousands of mainly young demonstrators took to the streets to protest against Mr Pena Nieto and what they say is bias in Mexico’s mainstream media.

The first goal, activists say, is to outline an agenda that tackles issues of a wider public interest.

“We know that we need to look at broader topics to keep the support of the Mexican society,” student Ignacio Martinez told the BBC.

“But we want to keep the original spirit of the group that was born non-partisan.”

But many are concerned the student movement will have to compromise and search for allies if it is to enter the political mainstream.

“They should remain independent rather than defining alliances. But this is just wishful thinking, I don´t think their voices will rise above other groups that know how to handle political battles,” says Roger Bartra, professor emeritus at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“They are trapped in this dichotomy – they need to find allies to survive but those allies might devour them.”

Media watchdog

It has only existed for just over two months, but #YoSoy132 has already experienced serious splits.

Some students left saying that, despite its non-partisan character, the movement had tacitly aligned itself with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, candidate for the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). He is challenging the election result.

Others see the group as too close to students’ interests and have created the broader National Front Against the Imposition (of Pena Nieto), an offspring of the #132 that now is going its own way.

“The movement has exceeded the #132 goals. The National Front we now have is more inclusive, it welcomes everyone, from workers to party affiliates – not just students,” says Herz Jossa, who left #132.

The #YoSoy132 movement was born on the streets, but members have acknowledged the need for “a new era” in which public demonstrations are just one part of their activities.

“Taking the streets is a sign of political muscle, but that’s not all we do. We are thinking of engaging citizens in workshops about public media, for example, and that’s just one initiative of many,” says Mr Santillan.

They are also trying to draft a #YoSoy132 bill that would regulate media access and promote alternative ownership of radio and TV networks, although the debate about how they could move such a proposal forward is still in its early stages.

Mexican competition authorities have offered to involve and inform the group about the granting of a broadcasting licence for a third free-to-air television network.

“To survive as a movement, they would need to take part in the new government, in areas such as youth policy. There is a path that they can follow to translate their activism into political participation,” says Prof Alfredo Nateras at UNAM in Mexico City.

But that may be a challenge in itself.

The electoral court is likely to confirm Mr Pena Nieto as the next Mexican president.

A youth movement that contested his victory might not be the PRI’s first choice of dialogue partner.


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