CubaNews / December 2003
By Larry Luxner
Last month, in a makeshift auditorium on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, hundreds of Haitian dignitaries and young medical students waited for the arrival of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
While they sat in their aluminum folding chairs, Cuban bolero music blared from loudspeakers, not far from the plastic sheeting flapping in the wind that ironically advertised, among other things, Univisión Channel 23 — a rabidly anti-Castro TV station in Miami. Ironic, because Aristide had shown up here to cut the ribbon on a new medical school staffed by Cuban doctors and financed (in another irony) by the staunchly anti-communist government of Taiwan.
The Nov. 14 ceremony was symbolic of Cuba’s growing friendship with Haiti, which next month marks its 200th anniversary as the world’s first independent black republic.
Located only 45 miles from the eastern tip of Guantánamo province, impoverished Haiti is also Cuba’s closest neighbor in the Caribbean, both geographically and culturally. After Haiti’s slave rebellion in 1804, many French slaves and planters settled in eastern Cuba, where they developed the coffee industry. Their descendants eventually joined in the struggle against Spain; José Martí greatly admired Haitian independence hero Toussaint L’Ouverture and frequently emphasized Cuba’s brotherhood with nuestra orilla negra [our black rim].
During and after World War I, thousands of Haitians were brought to Cuba as cane-cutters, but after the economic crisis of 1922, most had no option to remain in Cuba.
“With the triumph of the revolution in 1959, our Haitian population was integrated into Cuban society and relations with Haiti were suspended,” said Rolando Gómez González, Cuba’s ambassador in Port-au-Prince. “After 30 years of no relations under Duvalier, there were hardly any contacts left between the two countries.”
In 1991, Aristide — who had been elected by an overwhelming majority of Haitians — was overthrown in a military coup, but restored to power three years later under the protection of U.S. forces. Gómez said that “in 1996, relations were normalized, and we began a process of mutual recognition.”
Slightly smaller than Maryland, the country today has over 8.5 million inhabitants crammed into its cities, towns and barren hillsides. Haiti’s per-capita GDP hovers around $250 a year, making it by far the poorest nation in the Americas.
According to World Bank figures, 80% of Haiti’s population lives in abject poverty; 76% of children under the age of 5 are underweight or experience stunted growth, and 63% of Haitians are undernourished.
In addition, Haiti accounts for 90% of all AIDS cases in the Carib-bean, and because there’s only one doctor for every 10,000 people, the country’s infant mortality rate stands at 93 deaths per 1,000 live births.
“Our objective is to combat Haiti’s extreme poverty,” said Gómez.
To that end, Cuba has sent 705 doctors, educators and agriculture experts to Haiti, where they work in 95 of the country’s 133 comunas or municipalities.
Of the 705 Cubans in Haiti, 579 are medical specialists — pediatricians, surgeons, anastheticians, obstetricians, gynecologists and others. The Haitian government pays them monthly stipends of 5,000 gourdes (a little over $100) for basic living expenses, as well as their food and lodging.
“We provide public health services, especially in cities where there are no specialists. Our people live with the Haitians in their communities,” he said. “And our collaboration is not only in health. We support veterinary services in Haiti to combat animal diseases such as rabies.”
The Cubans themselves don’t receive salaries, though their government spends $520,000 a year to transport them to and from Haiti.
“At the same time we're providing health services to the Haitian people, we’re contributing to the establishment of human resources so necessary in this country,” he said, explaining that 628 Haitian doctors have been trained by Cuban experts, both at the medical school that Aristide inaugurated last month, and in Santiago de Cuba.
Faubert Gustave, Haiti’s minister of finance, says 82% of all Haitians have been treated by a Cuban physician or health-care specialist.
“When the people go to a hospital, they ask for Cuban doctors, becuase they know they’ll get proper care,” he told us. “I suppose a lot of people would be dead if they weren’t here.”
Cuba also cooperates with France in the fight against AIDS, and works with NGOs like the Pan American Health Organization and Care to reduce maternal mortality in Haiti.
“In three to four months, our doctors learn Creole, since the population they attend to doesn’t speak either English or French,” he said. “Remember that 60% of the people are illiterate.”
Which is why Cuban educators are also in Haiti, working on a novel approach to dramatically boost the country’s literacy rate.
Fernando Fernández, who’s from Holguín, is an advisor to the National Literacy Program on Radio. He directs a 21-member Cuban team that has already taught over 109,000 Haitians to read and write Creole.
“For us, this is very significant because all the other literacy programs have failed. We hope to teach literacy to a quarter of a million people,” he said, explaining that classes are given on two FM stations — Radio Temu and Radio Guinne.
Fernández says the program is just over a year old, and is similar to what Cuban educators are doing in remote villages from Nicaragua to New Zealand. “It’s a universal method that can be applied to any language or dialect,” he said. “We don’t actually teach the classes. What we do is train Haitian personnel who give the classes on the radio.”
Besides health-care and literacy, Cuba is helping Haiti revive its moribund sugar industry, which is centered on the L’Arbonnite Valley.
Gómez said Cuba is also assisting in the development of Haiti’s depressed fishing sector.
“We have brought fresh-water species, and have established an artificial fish farm that’s now producing 7 million offspring a year. We hope to reach 15 million fish next year. This is an important contribution in Haiti’s struggle for food security.”
Although Castro has never been to Haiti, Aristide paid official visits to Cuba twice — in July 2001 and again in December 2002.
Yet Gómez insists Havana is not motivated by ideology or politics. “We’re doing this to help the Haitian people who have suffered so much during the last 200 years,” he said. “We can’t offer financial assistance because we’re also a poor country. All we can do is share our human resources to benefit the Haitian people.”