By WILLIAM STEIF | Special to The State | [url=http://www.thestate.com]http://www.thestate.com[/url]

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti —Killings and chaos have been the main news out of this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere in recent months.

But something positive is happening. The problem is its source — Cuba, which turns off many folks automatically.

What’s positive is aid from Fidel Castro’s nation, whose eastern tip is only 48 miles across the water from northwest Haiti.

Cuba isn’t coughing up any money, says Cuban ambassador to Haiti Rolando A. Gomez Gonzales. But, he adds, “There are 579 Cuban health specialists in Haiti now, most of them doctors.”
“We can’t offer financial assistance because we’re also a blocked country” — a reference to the U.S. embargo on Cuba — “but we can give our human resources.”

Haiti is in a Maryland-sized country of 8.5 million people with fewer than 2,000 physicians total, concentrated mainly in its capital.

In addition, says Gomez, “Our collaboration supports veterinary services. Cuba is training 628 Haitian doctors in Haiti and Cuba. We have a program to combat illiteracy here. We’ve revived the abandoned Haitian sugar industry, and we’re aiding the fishing industry by stocking 7 million fish and hope to reach 15 million a year.”

Gomez says 705 Cubans are working in Haiti. “The cooperation isn’t motivated by ideology or politics. We’re helping the Haitian people who’ve suffered so much in the last 200 years.”

COOPERATING AGAINST POVERTY

Cuba had no diplomatic relations with Haiti after Castro took over at the start of 1959.

“There were hardly any contacts” during Haiti’s Duvalier dictatorships, Gomez says, even though many people in eastern Cuba are descended from Haitians who crossed the water.

The Duvaliers were overthrown in early 1986, and relations between Cuba and Haiti resumed in 1996, at the end of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s first term.

“Today, it’s different,” says Gomez. “After 1996, both countries began intergovernmental cooperation ... to combat the extreme poverty here.”

Gomez adds: “We’re working in 95 percent of Haiti’s 133 municipalities. We consider our cooperation exemplary. It’s disinterested, unconditional support.”

Haitian public health services “have no specialists in the main cities ó no surgery, no anesthesia, no obstetrics,” Gomez says

That may be one reason Haiti’s infant mortality rate ó deaths in the first year of life ó is about 93 per 1,000 live births. Cuban and U.S. rates: 7 per 1,000 births.

In a press conference at the United Nations in New York, Cuba’s permanent representative, Orlando Requeijo Gual, said Cuban doctors provide health care for 75 percent of Haitians.

He says Cuban medical efforts saved nearly 86,000 Haitian lives in the last five years. In early March, for example, a Cuban medical team set up a canvas hospital next to Port-au-Prince’s University Hospital and, in five days, helped 406 patients, 33 with gunshot wounds, the U.N. representative says. This came after a Feb. 11 Cuban shipment of 12.2 tons of medicines.

Gomez says Haiti pays the salaries and transportation costs of the experts it sends to Haiti. It also provides food and lodging, and $100 a month per person as “spending money.”

Cuban professors are on Haitian faculties and Haitians are on scholarships at Cuba’s Santiago de Cuba university. “We have a triangular program to fight AIDS with France and other programs with the Pan American Health Organization and UNAID,” says Gomez.

U.S. AID DOES NOT GO TO GOVERNMENT

Cubans arriving in Haiti learn Creole, the Haitian language, in about three to four months, Gomez adds.

Gomez says Cuba spends $520,000 a year to supply its experts to Haiti, a tiny sum compared to what U.S. State Department Lou Fintor says the United States spends.

“The U.S. is the largest donor since Aristide was restored to power (in 1994), making more than $850 million in donor funds available to Haiti in fiscal years 1995 to 2003,” Fintor said, speaking by phone from Washington. “All U.S. grants in 2003 totaled more than $70 million to promote health care, nutrition, education, sustainable agriculture, micro-enterprise and democracy programs.”

Haitian Embassy spokesman John Kozyn, speaking by phone from Washington, says “most of that (U.S.) money has been funneled through NGOs and PVOs” ó non-government organizations and private voluntary organizations.

Kozyn says the money “does not go to the government,” it mostly goes through outfits like Catholic Relief Services or Lutheran and Baptist projects.

Aristide’s recent ouster isn’t likely to affect Cuban aid to Haiti, says Requeijo Gual.

Cuban workers have been instrumental in reconstruction of a big sugar mill at Darbonne.

20 Cuban veterinarians and technicians are putting together a sanitary control program while training Haitian staff.

10 Cuban technicians are helping with a national aquaculture program.

Eleven Cuban agricultural specialists are working as part of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s food security program.

Cuba also is cooperating in a road-building program.

Cubans also are pushing literacy in Haiti, where 49 percent of the citizens are illiterate, according to Cuba’s Fernando Fernandez Rodriguez.

Normally a university teacher at Holguin, Cuba, Fernandez has been in Haiti since October 2002, leading 20 other Cubans “training Haitians who run the national literacy program.”

The Haitians conduct radio classes “at homes, workplaces, schoolrooms,” says Fernandez.

“We finished a term last July, taught literacy to 109,000 people,” he said. “This is very significant because all other literacy programs here have failed. Now, we’re giving literacy to a quarter-million people who must learn to read and write in Creole.”

William Steif, a retired journalist, lives in Blythewood.