>by Derrick O’Keefe | [url=http://www.rabble.ca]http://www.rabble.ca[/url]
Cuba has been in the forefront in terms of providing aid to disaster-stricken countries.
The geography of Cuba has always made its Revolution a tenuous proposition. Situated only 150 kilometres across the Straits of Florida from the United States, the construction of socialism so close to the epicentre of world capitalism was and is — in today’s unipolar world — wrought with difficulties.
In recent years, Cuba’s efforts to maintain an alternative social and economic system have been further endangered by its geography. The island nation, struggling to recover from the loss of the Soviet trading bloc and facing the stubborn and intensified U.S. embargo, has been hit by repeated hurricanes, inflicting severe damage along its 3,735 kilometres of coastline from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic Ocean.
From Michelle in 2001, to Charley, Ivan, and the rest this year, Cuba has faced a string of major hurricanes.
Cuba’s response to these natural disasters has been exemplary, and their approach helps to reveal some of the reasons for its Revolution’s endurance in the face of so much hostility from its northern neighbour.
Surveying the relative damage and loss of life caused by myriad storms in this turbulent hurricane season, the United Nations praised Cuba’s response. “The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does,” explained Salvano Briceno, Director of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), a United Nations organization based in Geneva.
The right-wing Miami Herald was unimpressed, instead citing the hurricane preparation as one more proof of Fidel Castro’s wickedness. A news piece in the Herald carried the headline “Cuba imposes strict response,” implying that the evacuation of 1.9 million people was as much an exercise in totalitarianism as it was a safety precaution.
The UN, for its part, disagreed, and highlighted in its press statement the crucial role of an educated population in minimizing damage:
Disaster preparedness, prevention and response are part of the general education curriculum. People in schools, universities and workplaces are continuously informed and trained to cope with natural hazards. From an early age, all Cubans are taught how to behave as hurricanes approach the island. They also have, every year, a two-day training session in risk reduction for hurricanes, complete with simulation exercises and concrete preparation actions. This facilitates the mobilization of their communities at the local level when a hurricane hits Cuba.
Cuba felt the disastrous impact of hurricanes early on in its revolutionary process. In 1963, a year after the October missile crisis and two years after their defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the island was ravaged by Flora, which killed over 1,000 people and inflicted major crop and structural damage. Ever since, hurricane preparedness has been incorporated into the education system and into the country’s Civil Defence, both areas that involve mass participation from all sectors of Cuban society.
Long before the recent UN statement, Cuba has been providing “the threat of a good example” ó from the perspective of the strategists of Empire to the north ó in a number of fields, by providing free health care and higher education and by ranking high on a number of measures of human development.
The people of Cuba, and the leadership of the Revolution, have always sought to spread the example of the benefits of their social development. Internationalism has been promoted, not only by providing military aid to national liberation struggles, but also by brigades of hundreds and thousands of volunteer teachers and medical personnel. And so, even in these tough economic times of recent years, Cuba has been in the forefront in terms of providing aid to disaster-stricken countries, and particularly generous in the provision of volunteer doctors, who are essential for minimizing the infectious diseases that so often break out in a hurricane or tropical storm’s wake.
A couple of recent examples reveal this internationalism, either evidence of a truly atypical dictator or of a conscious and mobilized people. In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated huge sections of Central America, leaving more than 10,000 dead. Hundreds of Cuban doctors volunteered to work in the wake of Mitch. After these internationalists discovered a shocking lack of trained doctors, Cuba initiated a unique and remarkable project, the Latin American School of Medical Sciences. The facility trains thousands of medical students from throughout the region for free, emphasizing participation of the poor and of those from oppressed nationalities.
When torrential rainfalls resulted in landslides that killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans in December 1999, some 450 Cuban doctors were dispatched to provide much needed emergency service. This medical aid has grown into a long-term program as well, as thousands of doctors from Cuba work at the invitation of Venezuela’s government, offering services in the poor barrios of Caracas where the wealthy local doctors never tread.
Cuba’s generosity and international spirit is in sharp contrast to the ever-shrinking foreign aid budgets of wealthy nations, and the usually token contributions they offer in the event of major natural disasters. And its response to these disasters provides us with an example of what can be accomplished with education and planning, and with real attention to human needs.
It’s a “threateningly good” example that needs to be disseminated, with or without the help of the shrill anti-Castro mainstream media. Then, perhaps, ó though the statement is unlikely to come from the United Nations ó the idea that “the Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries” could start to take root with respect to much more than just disaster response.
Derrick O’Keefe is a Vancouver-based activist and a founding editor of Seven Oaks Magazine where this article first appeared.