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Haiti and Havana don’t mix in mainstream media

While watching news broadcasts of the international aid effort in post-earthquake Haiti, I kept wondering if Cubans had arrived to help. Their country is so close to Haiti and I know that they have highly skilled teams in emergency response, due to their many hurricanes. The newscasters mentioned aid groups from Red Cross to Unicef and various nonprofits active in Haiti, but I never heard if Cubans were on hand.


It was no surprise that U.S. media outlets didn’t mention Cuba, due to their decades-old embargo of this island nation and its inclusion on the U.S. list of “terrorist” countries.  But I figured that Canadian reporters would at least acknowledge Cuban aid efforts. Not so.


A friend of mine sent me the following article, which he found online via Al Jazeera’s English media service. This untold-by-the-media information makes me think of the “Health Care Olympics” episode that Michael Moore did on his show TV Nation. In that documentary segment, he had a person with a broken bone receive health care in three different countries (Canada, the U.S., and Cuba), then compared the service provided in each case. Cuba won: it gave the best care in the fastest time with no cost to the patient.


However, NBC censors stepped in, saying that politically, there was no way they could show Cuba as the winner on prime-time television. They insisted that the segment had to make Canada the winner, and although Moore argued on this point up to show time, Canada was announced the winner. Moore writes in his book Adventures in a TV Nation: “Did NBC think that a new missile crisis would erupt if we showed the commies winning? . . . It makes you wonder what else is ‘changed’ on TV if something this insignificant cannot even make it on the air in its original form.”


 Here are excerpts of the article my friend sent me:

Cuba’s aid ignored by the media?

By Tom Fawthrop in Havana

After the quake struck, Haiti’s first medical aid came from Cuba.

Among the many donor nations helping Haiti, Cuba and its medical teams have played a major role in treating earthquake victims.

Public health experts say the Cubans were the first to set up medical facilities among the debris and to revamp hospitals immediately after the earthquake struck.

However, their pivotal work in the health sector has received scant media coverage.

Special Report: Haiti earthquake

“It is striking that there has been virtually no mention in the media of the fact that Cuba had several hundred health personnel on the ground before any other country,” said David Sanders, a professor of public health from Western Cape University in South Africa.

The Cuban team coordinator in Haiti, Dr Carlos Alberto Garcia, says the Cuban doctors, nurses and other health personnel have been working non-stop, day and night, with operating rooms open 18 hours a day.

During a visit to La Paz hospital in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, Dr Mirta Roses, the director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) which is in charge of medical coordination between the Cuban doctors, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a host of health sector NGOs, described the aid provided by Cuban doctors as “excellent and marvellous”.

La Paz is one of five hospitals in Haiti that is largely staffed by health professionals from Havana. . .

Before the earthquake struck, 344 Cuban health professionals were already present in Haiti, providing primary care and obstetrical services as well as operating to restore the sight of Haitians blinded by eye diseases.

More doctors were flown in shortly after the earthquake, as part of the rapid response Henry Reeve Medical Brigade of disaster specialists. The brigade has extensive experience in dealing with the aftermath of earthquakes, having responded to such disasters in China, Indonesia and Pakistan.

“In the case of Cuban doctors, they are rapid responders to disasters, because disaster management is an integral part of their training,” explains Maria a Hamlin Zúniga, a public health specialist from Nicaragua.

“They are fully aware of the need to reduce risks by having people prepared to act in any disaster situation.”

Cuban doctors have been organising medical facilities in three revamped and five field hospitals, five diagnostic centres, with a total of 22 different care posts aided by financial support from Venezuela. They are also operating nine rehabilitation centres staffed by nearly 70 Cuban physical therapists and rehab specialists, in addition to the Haitian medical personnel.

The Cuban team has been assisted by 100 specialists from Venezuela, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Canada and 17 nuns.

Havana has also sent 400,000 tetanus vaccines for the wounded. . .

Media silence

However, in reporting on the international aid effort, Western media have generally not ranked Cuba high on the list of donor nations.

One major international news agency’s list of donor nations credited Cuba with sending over 30 doctors to Haiti, whereas the real figure stands at more than 350, including 280 young Haitian doctors who graduated from Cuba. The final figure accounts for a combined total of 930 health professionals in all Cuban medical teams making it the largest medical contingent on the ground.

Another batch if 200 Cuban-trained doctors from 24 countries in Africa and Latin American, and a dozen American doctors who graduated from Havana are currently en route to Haiti and will provide reinforcement to existing Cuban medical teams.

By comparison the internationally-renowned Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or Doctors without Borders) has approximately 269 health professionals working in Haiti. MSF is much better funded and has far more extensive medical supplies than the Cuban team. . .

Western NGOs employ media officers to ensure that the world knows what they are doing. . .

Cuban medical teams, however, are outside this predominantly Western humanitarian-media loop and are therefore only likely to receive attention from Latin American media and Spanish language broadcasters and print media.

There have, however, been notable exceptions to this reporting syndrome. On January 19, a CNN reporter broke the silence on the Cuban role in Haiti with a report on Cuban doctors at La Paz hospital.

Cuba/US cooperation

When the US requested that their military plans be allowed to fly through Cuban airspace for the purpose of evacuating Haitians to hospitals in Florida, Cuba immediately agreed despite almost 50 years of animosity between the two countries.

Cuban doctors received global praise for their humanitarian aid in Indonesia. Josefina Vidal, the director of the Cuban foreign ministry’s North America department, issued a statement declaring that: “Cuba is ready to cooperate with all the nations on the ground, including the US, to help the Haitian people and save more lives.”

This deal cut the flight time of medical evacuation flights from the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s southern tip to Miami by 90 minutes.

According to Darby Holladay, the US state department’s spokesperson, the US has also communicated its readiness to make medical relief supplies available to Cuban doctors in Haiti.

“Potential US-Cuban cooperation could go a long way toward meeting Haiti’s needs,” says Dr Julie Feinsilver, the author of Healing the Masses – a book about Cuban health diplomacy, who argues that maximum cooperation is urgently needed. . . .

The Montreal summit, the first gathering of 20 donor nations, agreed to hold a major conference on Haiti’s future at the United Nations in March.

Some analysts see Haiti’s rehabilitation as a potential opportunity for the US and Cuba to bypass their ideological differences and combine their resources – the US has the logistics while Cuba has the human resources – to help Haiti. . .

But, will Haiti offer the US administration, which has Cuba on its list of nations that allegedly “support terrorism”, a “new dawn” in its relations with Cuba?

In late January, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, thanked Cuba for its efforts in Haiti and welcomed further assistance and co-operation.

In Haiti’s grand reconstruction plan, Feinsilver argues, “there can be no imposition of systems from any country, agency or institution. The Haitian people themselves, through what remains of their government and NGOs, must provide the policy direction, and Cuba has been and should continue to be a key player in the health sector in Haiti.”


(For those of you who think “terrorist” when you hear “Al Jazeera,” consider this: the CRTC in Canada has agreed to broadcast Al-Jazeera English (AJE) to its cable and satellite providers. Started in 2006, AJE is the primary international news channel based in the Middle East that covers issues in the developing world. Hardly a terrorist sympathizer, AJE criticizes political repression and is banned in Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and until last summer, Saudi Arabia. Ponder this media cred: former CBC News chief Tony Burman is AJE’s managing director. )  

February 16, 2010 at 7:33 pm
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