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Cuban doctors in demand from Barbados to Cape Verde
CubaNews / July-August 2009

By Larry Luxner

Freddy Elizalde is a long way from home. Originally from Matanzas, the internal medicine specialist has spent the last 14 years of his life in Cape Verde — a Portuguese-speaking island archipelago 300 miles off the coast of West Africa.

“When I arrived in 1995, there weren’t even 70 doctors,” says Elizalde, 56, who’s stationed at the Hospital Dr. Agostinho Neto in Praia, the capital city. “Today there are 320 Cuban physicians working in the country, and 52% of Cape Verde’s doctors have studied in Cuba.”

His colleague, Havana-born oncologist Sofia Alsina, opened the hospital’s cancer unit in August 2007.

“Diseases of the First World are being seen with increasing frequency in Cape Verde,” she told CubaNews. “As the country develops, we see fewer cases of infectious diseases and more chronic diseases like hypertension, cancer and diabetes.”

Closer to home, ophthalmologist Maritza Miqueli spends her days looking into the eyes of patients at the Sir Winston Scott Clinic in Bridgetown, Barbados. Before coming here last October, she worked in two other Carib-bean countries — St. Vincent and Jamaica.

“Mainly these are patients who can’t afford surgery,” she explained between eye exams. “It’s not like what you’d see in Jamaica. Here, the standard of living is much higher, but cataract surgery costs $3,000 or $4,000 here, and my patients can’t afford it.”

Barbados and Cape Verde — on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean — are both island nations that have forged exceptionally strong diplomatic relations with Cuba, despite also enjoying warm ties with the United States.

In Barbados, that feeling of solidarity is apparent along the island’s eastern shore just north of Bridgetown. There, a roadside pyramid-shaped monument pays homage to the 73 passengers who died with a Cubana jet was blown out of the sky in 1976 by a bomb.

“There’s a deep bond between the Cuban people and the rest of the Caribbean,” says well-known Guyanese journalist and author Ricky Singh, who’s lived in Barbados for many years. “And there’s a kind of anger here that the terrorists who bombed that plane did it in our airspace.”

In December 1972, Barbados and three other English-speaking Caribbean nations — Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago — jointly established diplomatic relations with the Castro regime in open defiance of the Nixon administration.

“Cuba has never forgotten what Fidel considered the most bold diplomatic initiative by four relatively small states — especially at a time when the OAS was under tremendous pressure by the United States,” he said.

“Every three years, there is a Caricom-Cuba Day, to keep alive the concept of solidarity between this region and Cuba.”

Singh added: “This is a moral stand, which successive governments in Washington have misunderstood. This a culture of resistance against the United States for maintaining its punishing embargo.”

Relations between Barbados and Cuba took a jump earlier this year, when Prime Minister David Thompson made an official visit to Havana, accompanied by Maxine McClean, the minister of foreign affairs, and other government and private-sector officials.

None of this really concerns Miqueli, who would rather talk medicine than politics. Her mission in Barbados is part of Opera-tion Miracle — an innovative Cuban medical program that has restored eyesight to more than 1.5 million people from 35 countries around the world.

So far this year, she told CubaNews, 164 citizens of Barbados have been flown to Cuba for eye surgeries, 136 for cataracts and the rest for pterygium.

“In a normal day, I receive 20 patients. Here, we make appointments for a specific day,” she explained. “In St. Vincent, there were two of us seeing 200 patients in one day.” Miqueli, who’s been an ophthalmologist for 31 years, is the only Cuban working on this program in Barbados; the nurse and two others on her team are local hires.

“First, I see these patients, and I decide if their cataracts can be operated on, or if they’re blind for another reason. Throughout the Caribbean, there’s a high percentage of glaucoma,” she explained.

“If I determine that we can operate, I put them on a waiting list of 40 or 50 people. Then they all travel together with their families,” said Miqueli. “It’s a specific charter flight they send from Cuba to pick up these pople, and they normally stay three weeks in Cuba. They don’t pay anything.”

Patricia Gittens, 61, had cataract surgery at Havana’s Pando Ferrer Eye Hospital. She came back a dedicated fan of Cuba.

“They do their best to make you feel comfortable. The people are nice, and the rooms are very clean,” she told CubaNews, adding that she never considered having the operation done at a local hospital in Barbados.

“Some people here did the operation and they still had to go to Cuba to get the eye done over again,” said Gittens, who traveled to Cuba with nearly 50 other Barbadians in April of this year.

Another patient, Basil Ward, came to Havana to have his cataract removed for free. “I could have had the operation in Barbados, but I would have had to wait a year. There’s a huge waiting list.”

In Cape Verde, Cuban doctors and nurses are present in all nine of the African country’s populated islands — from volcanic Fogo and highly urbanized São Vicente to the beach and desert island of Boa Vista.

“We’ve had good relations with Cuba since our independence in 1975,” said José Luís Rocha, director-general for external policy at Cape Verde’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rocha has been to Cuba twice, including a 1983 visit that featured a talk with Fidel Castro and a trip to Isla de la Juventud, where 1,000 Cape Verdeans have studied over the years.

“During the revolutionary period in Portugal, which put an end to the Salazar regime, a lot of people dreamed of being revolutionaries,” said Rocha.

Yet that didn’t stop Cape Verde from adopting a pragmatic foreign policy, he pointed out.

“People said that from the beginning, Cape Verde was a Marxist-Leninist country. “That’s not true,” he said. “Our leaders got assistance from Russia, Cuba, Algeria and China, but they also got help from Sweden, Holland, France and Portugal. We were a one-party system but we had the freedom to travel.”

Pedro Evelio Dorta González, Cuba’s ambassador in Cape Verde, says there are four Cuban diplomats in Praia, the capital, and 39 doctors sent to Cape Verde by the Cuban government. The other 200 or so are working independently, and generally married to Cape Verdean nationals.

“Each year, the Cuban presence is increasing. This year, we’ll have almost 300 Cubans here,” said Dorta, a 68-year-old career diplomat who’s also served as ambassador to Mozambique and Lesotho. “There’s a great chemistry between Cuba and Cape Verde. They’re very noble people.”

We asked Dorta if Cape Verde is really African.

“Yes, but with a big dose of Europe thrown in, because of the Portuguese who came here with African slaves,” he said. “It’s a mix — a lot like Cuba.”

Dorta, who’s originally from Villa Clara, has on his office wall a faded black-and-white photo of Fidel posing with Amilcar Cabral, father of Cape Verdean independence.

“Thanks to the help Cuba has given, Cape Verde has gone from being a sub-developed country to a middle-developed country,” the ambassador said proudly.

In fact, Cape Verde seems to be one of the few places on Earth where American and Cuban diplomats actually get along.

“I must say that here, there’s an atmosphere of cooperation,” Dorta told CubaNews. “The U.S. Embassy respects us, and we respect them. The United States has given very important assistance to Cape Verde through the Millennium Challenge Account. We have no problems whatsoever with them.”

Although the climate is tropical and it’s relatively easy for Cubans to learn Portuguese, most of the doctors present in Cape Verde are clearly there for the money.

José Gabriel Levy, an environmental specialist at the UN office in Praia, said “any Cuban who is able to get a job here feels very lucky,” because it’s a chance to leave Cuba.

“Here they have opportunities,” he said. “A lot of them come as doctors or teachers and marry Cape Verdeans and stay. They get salaries here they’d never get in Cuba. I went to Cuba in 1997, and I felt sorry for them.”

One Cuban doctor on the island of Sal said he earns 2,000 euro a month as an anasthesiologist — hundreds of times what he’d be making back home in Santa Clara. His wife earns even more as a pediatrician.

On the other hand, the Castro regime confiscated his house and most of his possessions as soon as it was clear he wasn’t returning. The doctor, who asked that his name not be published, told CubaNews he has no regrets.

Nor does Elizalde, he internal medicine specialist, who two years after arriving in Cape Verde married a local woman.

“I have two children here, and two in Cuba. And I go back to Cuba all the time,” he said. Elizalde, who’s also worked in Portuguese-speaking Angola, no longer answers to the Cuban government. At the crowded hospital in Praia, he works alongside doctors who do.

In their free time, all of them take turns at the office computer, checking the latest headlines on the website of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald.

Elizalde said that despite the hardships, Cuban doctors will keep flocking to this African archipelago, because the demand is there.

“Medicine in Cape Verde has advanced, but there’s still a long way to go,” he says. “There just aren’t enough specialists.”

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