Cubas gift to East Timor - good health
By John Loizou
November 26, 2006
Dili, November 26: The contrast between the physical presence of Cuba
and the rest of the world in East Timor is as stark as the difference
in the philosophies that divide them.
Most of the grand embassies and their subsidiaries, such as the ubiquitous
USAid, built for the countries that have rushed to recognise newly-independent
East Timor Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the former occupier,
Indonesia, and the former colonialist, Portugal dot the elegant
esplanade that borders Dili harbour, the Avenida dos Martires da Patria,
where centuries-old tropical trees provide shade and in less-troubled-times,
In the morning, middle-aged diplomats, accompanied by their security
guards, jog the beach.
By day, fishermen hawk their catch from beneath the shade while women
many dressed in traditional sarongs offer tomato, garlic
and bananas or play cards in the dust while they await customers.
Before sunset, their more affluent sisters from the spacious houses
used first by colonial administrators and then the commanders of the
Indonesian army sit by a lighthouse that Im told was built immediately
after World War II and watch the sprinkling of cargo vessels, wooden
fishing smacks and inter-island ferries riding at anchor or look out
to the massive statue of Christ installed by Jakarta that dominates
the far skyline or the barren island of Atauro.
Portuguese East Timor was a place of exile for opponents of Antanio
de Oliveira Salazar who was overseer of the authoritarian right-wing
regime that controlled his countrys social, economic, cultural
and political life from 1933 to 1974. Atauro served as a prison
a place of exile for the exiles.
But the embassy for the Republic of Cuba stands amid the hot dusty,
busy streets of the overcrowded and now sometimes violent city
in the lee of the rugged mountains that are so essential to life
in the most eastern of the sparsely-populated Lesser Sunda Islands.
Here, in this unexpected concrete jungle, the only shade is that provided
by the darkened windows.
But if the Cubans lack grandeur, they do not lack generosity.
At last count, the defiantly Socialist Caribbean country had 302 volunteers
working in East Timor.
They began arriving in April 2004 and their two-year tour of duty has
them working throughout the republic, including five hospitals and its
most remote villages.
There are: 228 physicians, 23 nurses, 40 health technicians and 11 teachers
of Portuguese and Spanish who help prepare young East Timorese to study
medicine in Cuba.
Another 12 member of the team work with the East Timorese students in
Almost 500 young East Timorese study medicine in Cuba with the first
20 now in their third year.
When he first saw the emaciated new arrivals from far off Southeast
Asia, President Fidel Castro quipped that they would have to be first
fattened before they could be expected to study successfully.
The programme was initiated by East Timors former Prime Minister,
Mari Alkatiri, and his successor, Jose Ramos Horta, told a meeting with
relatives of the students in Dili earlier this month that the cooperation
and solidarity symbolised by the Cuban health workers was a beautiful
gesture of friendship with the people of East Timor.
Cuba has given the opportunity to these youth to prepare themselves,
be better men and women, and return to their homeland in 2012 to work
for the welfare and health of the people of Timor Leste, he said.
Cuuba has physicians working in 68 countries, says a member of his countrys
management team for the East Timor programme, anaesthetist Dr. Eries
We will stay as long as the people of the country need us.
But our programme will ensure that in ten to 12 years most of
the doctors will be from East Timor.
Our plan is to stay here until the East Timor Government says
we are no longer required and our goal is to provide medical treatment
for all of the people of East Timor and to prevent disease.
Dr Salomon and three of his senior colleagues, programme deputy
co-ordinator, Dr Roberto Fernandez, the dean of the Medical Science
Faculty at East Timors National University, Dr Marcia Cuervo Calvino,
with co-ordinator of the Cuban nurses in East Timor, Javier Garrido
Guerraro, who previously served in Botswana, as interpreter and
I have met at the small, neat house in the grounds of the Dili Hospital
occupied by the Cubans where they proudly explain their programme to
In keeping with the portraits of revolutionary Che Guevara that look
down from the walls, a computer linked to the internet via broadband
in the corner and sipping excellent coffee a present from
Cuba they provide collective response to my
Were they shocked by the primitiveness of medical facilities in East
Timor, I ask.
After 45 years of the United States economic blockade we are accustomed
to hardship, they reply.
They also explain that the principal threats to the health of East Timors
mostly rural and slum-dwelling population are malaria, dengue fever,
respiratory infection, tuberculosis and malnutrition.
Data about the severity of these maladies is not available but the Cubans
are developing a variety of programmes to reduce the prevalence of these
common diseases in East Timor, says Dr Roberto Fernandez.
But the most important task is eradication of the mosquito habitat.
The Cubans also teach the action needed for preventative health
information now crucial to the thousands still living in the capitals
refugee camps where many of the Cubans are now working.
Cuban medicine throughout the world has two major objectives, they say.
To prevent disease and pay particular attention to the patients.
We are doing both in East Timor and all the members of our group
have the same tasks, says Dr Salomon.
The team a comprehensive collection of statistics as proof of their
For example, the child mortality rate where members of the Cuban team
work is 27.5 for each 1,000 live births more than 50 percent
less than elsewhere .
Maternity mortality is 175/100,000; elsewhere the figure is between
600 and 800 for each 100,000.
But myriad specialist services ranging from essential gynaecology to
orthopedics and pathological anatomy to forensic medicine and dermatology
to psychiatry and dentistry are also being provided.
The team has done more than 4000 surgeries in East Timor and these includes
the first Caesarean delivery at Oecusse the first such operation
in the district.
The Cuban government pays all the teams living costs, including
travel despite the blockade by successive United States administrations.
November 26, 2006