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In Their Own Words

Cuban doctors who provide disaster relief abroad.

Photo of Narciso Ortiz
NARCISO ORTIZ
U.S. medical student, Salvador Allende Hospital, Havana

When I first came here to Cuba, I was in a hurry to finish up and go back to the U.S. I had the idea that when I returned I would have a big house, and cars. ... At first it was a challenge to be here. I shared a room with seven other people. I ate mostly rice, beans, and salads. But now, I find it a more satisfying way of living. It is not paradise, but it's different when you have the basic necessities met. The human interactions are better; it's more of a community.

I was born in the Dominican Republic; my family immigrated to Newark in 1981. My father works at the Board of Education cleaning offices. My mother works at the airport; she cleans airplanes.

I would like to offer free health care when I get back. I met a doctor here who spent two years in Africa and did 800 operations on little kids without getting a dime. I would like to have that opportunity.

One thing that perplexes me is how much the Cubans have done with so little. When I go home, it's backwards. We have money, resources, technology, and yet we don't have universal health care. I believe that we can make it happen. We have to fight off the pharmaceutical and insurance companies, but I think we can do it.

One of the things I see here in Cuba is they are always optimistic. Sometimes when I go back home that's missing. Here, they have the attitude that yes, you can! A better world is possible!


Photo of Mayra Gonzalez Holz
MAYRA GONZALEZ HOLZ
Registered nurse, specializing in intensive care, served in Pakistan

We were at the camp to the furthest to the north in Pakistan, near the border with India and China. We treated people coming out of the mountains. I was amazed by the lack of nutrition. There were 10 -year-olds who looked like they were five or six.

It rained for days without stopping. It was so cold, I couldn't feel my feet. There was no electricity, except in the hospital. The children were brave; they didn't cry when they were injected. One boy brought his brother and stayed with him the whole time he was in the hospital. A little girl came with a five-day old baby. When we left at 6 a.m., the whole town came out to say goodbye, and they were crying. We left the hospital behind for the Pakistani army to use.

I'm ready to go to any other country if my services are needed.

 


Photo of Dr. Joaquin Garcie Romero
DR. JOAQUIN GARCIE ROMERO
Internal medicine, intensive care, The Gambia

When we went to the Republic of Gambia, what we found was that 95 percent of the people had no access to medical attention. At the peak, we had 250 Cuban health care professionals there. That meant a doctor in each of the main villages, which to some of them was something like a miracle. Having a doctor also created the expectation—they are recognizing they have a right to health care. We have to train Gambian doctors, because we can't keep such a large Cuban team there. So far, we have trained 15 Gambians, who have graduated and returned to practice in their country.

Here in Cuba, we face difficulties every day, but when you receive people who have nothing like what you have here, things we get for free, your concept of the world changes.

 


Photo of Rigoberto Gonzalez Ruiz
RIGOBERTO GONZALEZ RUIZ
Anesthesiologist, served in Pakistan

I worked at the Northwest border in Pakistan. The first hospital we set up was in the territory of the Pashtun, an ethnic group of Islam, where any wrong doing must be met with revenge. At first, we had difficulty getting them to come to the hospital. But little by little, we got to know their customs and they came. Cuban women did the field work to places 1500 meters up in the mountains, especially to work with the pregnant women and children. The most difficult moment was when we left—they cried and tore their clothes. First they prayed that we wouldn't leave. Then, that we would arrive back in Cuba safely. They told us that our work would stay in their hearts forever.

 


Photo of Luis Miquel Diez Dias
LUIS MIQUEL DIEZ DIAS
Anesthesiologist, served in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Ghana, Pakistan

The most beautiful mission I've been on was in Pakistan. We were able to go places only the shepherds could go. The most beautiful thing is to fulfill what you knew how to do. I don't know anything besides how to take care of human beings. Each experience is a collective experience of what we are capable of.

Practice is the criteria for the truth, and the only truth we have is that we give love to all the world. We are the enemy of death, and death has to hide from the Cuban health professional. Only with a big heart and love can we do this.

As long as we exist, Cuban health will be around the world.

 


Photo of Luis Sandoval
LUIS SANDOVAL
Orthopedic surgeon, served in Pakistan and Indonesia following the earthquakes.

It was a great experience to be able to help. We arrived with our own field hospitals, many of them tents equipped with x-rays and ultrasound. On December 31st, it started to rain, and then the rain turned to snow. It snowed so much the tents collapsed. Everyone went outside to shovel snow off the tent and put it back up. It was an unforgettable experience. I was operating on bone fractures resulting from the earthquake. And we had to learn cricket and volleyball so we could play with the people there. I cried when I left in April, and so did many of the people there. Then a month later, the earthquake hit Indonesia. We arrived there on the third and we were doing operations on the 5th. We stayed three months. When the President of Indonesia came to Cuba, he gave an award to us.

 


Photo of Heruerrea Miriam Romero
HERUERREA MIRIAM ROMERO
Pediatric nurse, served in Honduras

In 2002 there was a dengue fever epidemic in Honduras. Children were dying every day. We spent 27 months there, and we were able to control the outbreak. Students from the Latin American Medical School in Havana gave up their summer vacations to help.

We were scared when we first arrived because we were not used to working in an area with so many soldiers with large machine guns. There was a lot of violence.

The hospital was full of children. I did pediatric nursing. It is so tender working with children. We created special treatment areas just for dengue, but people would pretend they had dengue to get treatment for their other problems. We saw people who had never seen a doctor before. The people didn't want us to leave. It was very hard because we saw children dying. People cried when we left.

 


Cooperative communities

Photo of Esteban Magnani
ESTEBAN MAGNANI
Author, El Cambio Silencioso (The Silent Change), Prometeo, 2003

The recovered factories have built networks within the community. At first it was probably more a matter of survival—bringing more people into the factory made it harder for the police to evict them. But it's proven to be more than that, because it adds a lot to the life of the factory to have a cultural center or a kindergarten or adult school. When people really understand what's going on in the factory they're willing to help in other ways so the factory can grow and develop, and it's good for the whole community. So that's what cooperation is all about. You being better is going to make my life better. That's really powerful, I think.

Excerpt courtesy Melissa Young and Mark Dworkin, from their forthcoming documentary, “Argentina—Turning Around.” Their website is www.movingimages.org.

 


Photo of Pedro Garcia Pollila
PEDRO GARCIA POLILLA
Co-founder, La Aliancia Co-op near Barquisimeto, Venezuela

In this globalized world, some say they are happy because they have money in the bank. But that's why the world is in so much trouble. The forests turn into money in the banks, but that doesn't produce oxygen!

We are indigenous people, campesinos with dirt under our fingernails. We once worked for a landlord, but when we got the soil productive, he would take it away.

So we got together and asked the landlord if we could buy the land. He laughed and said, “What? Peasants buy my land? Sure! I'll sell it.” We got a loan from some nuns in Caracas and bought the land. Over time, we paid back the loan and bought more land. Today, we own 50 hectares.

In the cooperative, everything is shared. The property is collectively owned, and money goes into a joint account. Sometimes our income reaches minimum wage and sometimes not. But there are things we can't count—happiness, tranquillity. And today our young people are starting on the cooperative path.

 


Photo of Gaudy Garcia
GAUDY GARCIA
Co-founder, Moncar Cooperative near Barquisimeto, Venezuela

In the past, we wanted to be like those in the United States. If we wanted something special, we went to Miami. A lot of our culture was lost—our knowledge of our history and our music. Some would even rather eat hamburgers than black beans and empanadas.

This is something Chávez is helping to change. Now, we are again fully identifying with our culture. And now, women are participating in literacy programs, and we are fighting for our emancipation. During the coup, it was women who gathered in front of the palace to demand our president back.

Cooperativism puts the human being at the center. The accumulation of goods is not important; what's important is that people have a house and a school for their children. Some people say in the co-op we work hard and we have nothing, but what we have is a sense of being human. We share, we take care of each other, we think everyone is important.

We know a cooperative society is possible, because we are living it.

 


Photo of Rosalind Guillen
ROSALINDA GUILLEN
Community to Community Development, Bellingham, WA

I think the best part of the Social Forum is that we all understand that getting along together, transforming our relationships, and finding solutions is forever evolving. I like the saying that's used by a lot of the Social Forum activists, “We make the road by walking.” And the walking never stops and the path is forever going forward.

I see it as critical right now in the current political environment for social justice movements to come together and look beyond our own regions, and look beyond our own specializations in the work that we're doing and begin to intersect our issues. To me, the exciting part of the US Social Forum is to begin to build that path, so to speak, so that we're all walking together instead of waving at each other from different paths along the regions.

www.foodjustice.org

 


Photo of Jerome Scott
JEROME SCOTT
Project South, Atlanta, GA

The U.S. government is trying to drive a wedge between African Americans and the immigrant community, particularly the Latino community. We think it's really important that we unite, that we don't allow that wedge to be driven. And, you know part of our future plan is to build a black-brown alliance through the process of the US Social Forum and beyond. We think that a movement for social and economic justice in the United States is so necessary. We have got to build that movement up so that it's worthy of uniting with the movements that are developing across the globe. We look at the US Social Forum process as a major movement-building moment. And so that's why we're putting so much effort into it.

www.projectsouth.org

 

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