«Actually we had a nice experience, we were able to treat diseases that are not seen in Cuba. You study them or read them in a book but you don’t see them in practice, for that part it was nice. But there was also intense fear, for example of AIDS».
Cuban Marisol Díaz Rodríguez spent two years (2006-2008) in Zimbabwe as part of a medical brigade sent by the Cuban government to the African country.
«We were younger and we did it partly as an adventure. In Cuba there is no way to go anywhere, and we wanted to go out and see,» Marisol tells BBC Mundo, recalling the operation in which she was part with her husband. , one of the multiple internationalist missions -as they are known on the island- that Cuba launched in countries of Latin America, Asia and, especially, in Africa.
The most recent is the one that will be deployed in a few days in Sierra Leone to face the Ebola epidemic that has claimed more than 2,600 lives and caused almost 5,000 people, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization, WHO.
Cubans in the war against Ebola
The Cuban government announced that it will collaborate in the «international army» that international organizations led by the WHO want to form to combat Ebola.
«We are going to cooperate with a brigade of 165 collaborators, made up of 62 doctors and 103 nurses, who have an average of more than 15 years of work experience,» said the Minister of Public Health of Cuba, Roberto Morales Ojeda, during a presentation made at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
«All of them have previously appeared in situations of natural and epidemiological disasters, as well as in medical collaboration missions,» added Morales Ojeda, who said that his government responded to a request made cleanly by Margaret Chan, director of the WHO, and by the secretary general. of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
Some of the troops are brigades that are already in Sierra Leone (23) and Guinea Conakry (16). The mission will begin its journey in October and will have its operations center in Sierra Leone, one of the countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak, along with Liberia and Guinea.
«The Cuban announcement to send doctors to fight Ebola and also to try to help coordinate an international effort against the disease is in line with the traditional line of international medical missions and Cuba’s medical diplomacy,» William LeoGrande, professor, told BBC Mundo. from the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington DC (USA).
«Cubans have been sending doctors to other countries on humanitarian missions since the first years of the 1959 revolution,» says LeoGrande.
Long tradition in Cuban-African ties
The first mission that Cuba sent to Africa was destined for Algeria in 1963. Since then, Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Congo Brazzaville, and Zimbabwe stand out among the African countries that have received Cuban assistance.
Specifically, from the 1960s until now, 76,744 health collaborators have taken part in missions in 39 African countries. There are currently 4,048 collaborators in 32 African nations, of which 2,269 are doctors.
Where does that interest come from? The island’s political figures have repeated on different occasions that Cuba has an outstanding debt with Africa.
«Africa is linked by blood ties,» stated Bruno Rodríguez, Cuban foreign minister, at the time, who said that during the Spanish colony «nearly 1,300,000 African slaves were brought to Cuba in the midst of the slave trade.»
«Their descendants played a role in the island’s wars of independence in the 19th century and Cuba considers that it has a historical debt with Africa that must be covered.»
The Cuban authorities also appeal to the need to help a continent plagued by poverty, disasters and countless health emergencies.
William LeoGrande coincides in seeing humanitarianism as the main engine, originally, of the Cuban missions in Africa.
«I also think that there is no doubt that over time the Cuban government began to see it as a diplomatic initiative,» says LeoGrande in conversation with BBC Mundo.
«Faced with the hostility of the United States, Cuba sought to make friends in the Third World by all possible means, in search of allies. The US policy, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, was to isolate Cuba to the maximum of the other countries and Cuba’s strategy was to try to break that isolation: sending medical missions abroad was a way to achieve it.
In her case, Marisol Díaz Rodríguez acknowledges that many of these trips are made almost out of obligation.
«It’s not that it was forced, but they would see you badly in Cuba if you didn’t do it. On the other hand, Cuban doctors in Cuba earn less than US$20 a month and in any mission you defend yourself and earn a little more than that,» he says.
Critics say that Cuba carries out a policy of proselytizing in the countries to which it goes with humanitarian fines, but the economic aspect of these collaborations is the most controversial point of the Cuban presence in other countries.
During the first decades, Cuban missions abroad have no cost to the host countries.
«In recent years, Cuba began to charge countries that can pay. As we know, in the case of Venezuela, this country gives Cuba credits for the purchase of oil in exchange for the services of Cuban doctors, nurses and sanitary technicians who They are in Venezuela,” explains William LeoGrande, from the American University in Washington DC.
There are no official figures on the money the Cuban government receives for each international mission it deploys.
But numerous doctors who have deserted from these missions denounce that the Cuban government pays them a very small part of what it charges for selling their services.
«The medical mission is never so humanitarian. On the one hand, yes, but everyone knows that the Cuban government charges a lot, what nobody knows is the number,» says Marisol.
Another controversial point is the control that the Cuban government supposedly exercises over its international brigades.
According to Marisol’s testimony, the aid workers must hand over their passports to the heads of mission to avoid defections and their movements are controlled by members of the Cuban security who pretend to have other positions.
Not just health missions
Cuba’s missions in Africa are not just medical.
In fact, Cuba’s most notable intervention in Africa was of a military nature and is known as Operation Carlota, which involved Cuban participation in the Angolan civil war.
In 1975, the government of Fidel Castro sent the first contingent of soldiers to Angola and the mission ended in 1991 with the departure of the last Cuban soldier.
The Cuban military contingent reached 52,000 men and a total of about 450,000 Cubans, including doctors, teachers, engineers and soldiers, served in the African country during the 16 years that divided the operation.
The Cuban Carmen Galiano participated in this mission, as a teacher.
«I grew as a human being. One matures with age but living with people who are in very difficult situations makes you grow and see that there is always someone to help in the world,» Carmen explains in statements to BBC Mundo.
«I was 19 years old, I was in my second year of my degree in education when a solidarity aid was called for teaching and adult education students,» he says.
For the Cuban professor, the experience in Angola was revealing.
«I began to see life differently, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have a dress to give someone, but that you ask them how they feel. Everything was different in my life. I realized that the material is necessary, it is comfortable, but not full.»