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5 Cuba’s International Disaster Responses From 1960s Chile to the 2005 Henry Reeve Brigade Not once, throughout the selfless history of the Revolution, have our people failed to offer their supportive medical assistance to other nations in need of this aid at times when catastrophes have hit them, regardless of wide ideological and political differences, or the serious insults received from the government of any of these countries. Fidel Castro, at the graduation of the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics, and the National Graduation of Students of Medical Sciences, Ciudad Deportiva, September 19, 2005 The growing number of natural disasters resulting from climate change has produced a new term, “disaster tourism.” This refers to the issue of those traveling to disaster areas specifically to have an “experience” rather than provide meaningful assistance to those affected. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, an astonishing 10,000 NGOs from all over the world participated in the recovery operation and, despite the best of intentions, many only got in the way of the serious rescue attempts and made matters worse. Most stayed for just a few weeks—including the Canadian and U.S. naval presence, and their contribution garnered a tremendous amount of coverage in North American media. In many ways the role of international aid organizations appeared more as a public relations exercise than a humanitarian mission. The Cuban response could not have been more different. Their strategy in disaster response is one that is large-scale, longlasting , and has developed over time to help millions of the most marginalized and underserved. Cuban disaster response is characterized by the fact that their specialists help any country in need, regardless of the state of diplomatic relations that they have with Havana. They stay while they are needed, go to work in the areas worst affected, and are both well-trained and experienced in the realities and challenges of developing nations. They send medical staff, trained in complex emergency medicine procedures, and often their emergency as- Cuba’s International Disaster Responses: 1960s Chile to 2005 Henry Reeve Brigade · 119 sistance evolves into long-term medical support, as is the case in Honduras, Guatemala, and Haiti. All have extensive training for national disasters and significant experience in such situations. As a result Cuba is a world leader in disaster response, and in the last decade has responded on a government level to international natural disasters more than any industrialized country. This chapter will explore the phenomenon of Cuba’s international disaster response, including its history and development, and in particular will focus on the activities of the Henry Reeve Contingent, formed in 2005 precisely for this purpose. Several thousand strong, obligated to participate regularly in specialized training to keep its skills sharp and permanently on standby, it has an exemplary record in disaster areas of the world. The second part of the chapter examines the evolution of the Cuban emergency missions in two specific cases, Guatemala and Honduras, where emergency assistance provided by hundreds of Cuban medical personnel was followed up by a commitment to provide a comprehensive medical program to the underserved communities and continues to this day. As noted in the introductory chapter, the tradition of responding to natural disasters started in 1960 with Cuba’s support in Chile after a major earthquake devastated the city of Valdivia, causing 5,000 deaths. Cuba responded with a medical team which set up and staffed six rural field hospitals. A decade later a massive earthquake hit Peru, causing 80,000 fatalities. In less than 72 hours, Cuba had arrived with a medical brigade of 40 emergency specialists and more than 10 tons of supplies.1 Moreover, in Cuba (and within just nine days), 106,000 people donated their blood for the Peruvian victims, despite the fact that Cuba had strained diplomatic relations of both countries.2 These disaster response missions have continued throughout the decades, as Cuban medical brigades, supplies, and medications were sent to several countries in Latin America, as well as Asia, the Middle East, and Africa in the wake of natural disasters. Table 5.1 provides details on these missions. One of the most notable examples of Cuban disaster response came in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America on October 22, 1998. Mitch was a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, with winds of 180 mph and gusts of over 200 mph...


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