Healing Body and Heart, Cuban Style

Cuban doctors and artists–on the ground in Haiti even before the earthquake–are helping survivors heal.
Cuban doctors in Haiti, photo courtesy of the United Nations

In Port-au-Prince, mothers in a camp for people displaced by the January earthquake wait in line for their children to be inoculated against diphtheria and tetanus. The World Health Organization provides the vaccines, and Cuban doctors administer them.

Photo courtesy of the United Nations

The governments of Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti signed a trilateral accord on March 27 to rebuild the public health system in Haiti. Brazil committed $80 million toward the effort and pledged to create a national epidemiologic surveillance network. The Cuban contribution includes more than 1,600 doctors, several hundred of whom were already in Haiti when the earthquake hit and acted as first responders. Most of the medical delegation, however, came shortly after the earthquake, agreeing to provide top-quality health care for two years.

Since 1999, a several-hundred-strong team of Cuban-trained and sponsored doctors (with individual members rotating in and out) have staffed city hospitals and rural clinics throughout Haiti. Without charge to patient or government, they have focused their attention primarily in remote areas, offering general medical care to many who have never before received it and who might otherwise have died. The doctors have served as first responders after hurricanes.

Emergency Responders

The team that arrived after the January 12 earthquake is part of the Henry Reeve Cuban Medical Brigade, a post-disaster operation that has gone to Pakistan after a major earthquake, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, and a number of other places that have suffered major catastrophes. In February, part of the brigade was dispatched to Chile after an earthquake hit there.

The doctors are committed to health care that is free and accessible to everyone, and that is rooted in dignity and respect. One member, Dr. Wilsos Canton, said that they “don’t consider health care a business, but a right.”

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 The doctors come from 25 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and the Americas, including Haiti. They were all trained at the Cuban-run Latin American Medical School (ELAM), which has a branch in Venezuela. Travel to Haiti and all related expenses are covered by the Cuban government. Though doctors receive a small stipend for daily expenses, they are otherwise volunteers. Regardless of country of origin, they are known throughout Haiti as the "Cuban doctors."

ELAM has also trained, at no charge, 556 Haitian doctors in past years. As a condition of their education, new doctors must return to work in Haiti.

The young physicians of the Henry Reeve Brigade are working in three hospital sites around the capital, four community health posts, and hospitals in other towns and rural areas. In Carrefour and Croix-des-Bouquets, they have created field hospitals, where they provide 24-hour services with specialty care in pediatrics, surgery, intensive care, internal medicine, and gynecology. Teams of doctors also travel into displaced people’s camps with backpacks full of supplies to treat those who cannot or do not come to them. Moreover, five teams, working six days a week, have vaccinated more than 70,000 people against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, mumps, and measles.

At nine o'clock on a recent morning, after a bus ride through Port-Au-Prince’s traffic-clogged streets, five of the "Cuban doctors" hiked up the rocky street with large backpacks full of supplies and medicines. Arriving at their post in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood, they opened the sides of the tent that is permanently stationed there and hung a Cuban flag from it. They unpacked the medicines and arranged a couple of small wooden tables and some metal folding chairs, creating three care stations and a pharmacy.

Dr. David Alderete, an Argentine, sweated in the morning heat. His first patient was a 16-day-old baby, the daughter of a 19-year-old woman. After four days of diarrhea, the baby was malnourished and appeared lifeless. When Alderete lightly pinched the baby’s arm, her skin held the shape of his pinch. He determined she needed to go to the hospital for rehydration, explained to the mother where to go and who to talk with, and handed her a note for his Cuban colleagues on call at the hospital. She listened, agreed, and wrapped the baby back up in her little blankets. A few steps outside the tent, tears began flowing down the woman’s face.

Dr. Isaac Cañas, from El Salvador, said of the team’s work: “I feel proud but a little sad, because what we can do is small compared to the need. It’s our little grain of sand.”

Later that evening, Alderete, Cañas, and other doctors compared notes about patients back at their headquarters, which is downtown in a former annex of a military hospital. Living conditions at the camp are primitive; doctors sleep in small tents and stand in line for showers. The camp is highly organized, complete with rotating chores, late-night guard duties, and early morning meetings. The space also provides community and festivity to sustain the workload. That night the men held a belated International Women’s Day celebration. They decorated the dining hall with paper flowers, and kissed and congratulated the women. The players of a pick-up soccer game ceded the small courtyard as others turned up speakers for the Women’s Day dance party.

Healing Trauma Through Art

A second group of Cuban healers has been at work in Haiti, as well. The Cuban government is sponsoring the Martha Machado Artists’ Brigade, a troupe of musicians, dancers, jugglers, stilt-walkers, magicians, puppeteers, clowns, and painters. In response to the widespread trauma in Haiti, they offer mental health care through art, music, laughter, and playfulness.

A group of artists who first came together after a series of hurricanes in 2008 to perform for struggling communities throughout Cuba, the brigade currently has 50 volunteer members in Haiti. They will remain for a year. They are traveling throughout the country, performing daily outside hospitals, at displaced people’s camps, and in the streets.

On another recent morning, the Martha Machado Artists’ Brigade was outside the Hospital de Renaissance, while inside, members of the Henry Reeve Brigade were treating patients. In the streets, clowns and magicians had the audience laughing—a rare sight in Port-au-Prince these days. Next up was a group of Cubans of Haitian descent who sang in Creole. They pulled children up from the audience and in minutes all were dancing.

One young girl watched from her wheelchair on the sidelines, her face expressionless. One of her legs was amputated and the other was heavily bandaged. Spotting her, a woman in the troupe danced over to roll her into the middle of the group. A small circle formed around her, dancing and singing.

In the grand finale of the performance, stilt-walkers waved Cuban and Haitian flags, chanting, “Cuba! Haiti! Cuba! Haiti!” while the trumpets and drums moved the crowd in rhythm. Children snaked through the crowd in a Conga line.

At the ceremony to inaugurate the new trilateral accord, Cuban health minister Dr. José Ramón Balaguer said, “What would the world look like if all men and women lent their skills and solidarity like those of Henry Reeve? It would be a world full of peace, of love–a different world.”

Beverly Bell

Many thanks to Conner Gorry of for her help with research.


Cuba's holistic, prevention-focused health care system is one of the most effective in the world.  Cuban doctors are engaged in missions throughout poor parts of the world, exchanging medical know-how for positive diplomatic relations.

More of Beverly Bell's .

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