¿Hasta siempre? Goodbye to Cuban internationalism?

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¿Hasta siempre? Goodbye to Cuban internationalism?


Sujatha Fernandes writes about Cuban internationalism in our difficult times.

The Cuban Revolution brought with it Cuban internationalism. The small Caribbean nation was ready to provide trained doctors, literacy programmes, and disaster relief to other countries. Cuban internationalism has helped poverty and has helped to make connections between Cubans and marginalized populations like Bolivia and Timor Leste.

Medical help is another example. Cuban doctors leave behind their families and homes to work in poor communities abroad. They help where there are not enough doctors and also bring income for Cuba. The new far-right President Bolsonaro questioned their contracts and qualifications and sent home 11,400 Cuban doctors from Brazil. This brings into question the role of Cuban internationalism in a different world.

Cuban support began in a time of revolutions and decolonization during the 1960s and 1970s. Cuba sent soldiers to fight in anti-colonial wars in places such as Angola, organized literacy campaigns for poor and illiterate people in Nicaragua, and took part in guerrilla struggles in Latin America, such as the expedition to Bolivia led by the famous Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara. There was more Cuban support in the 2000s, with leftwing governments in power across Latin America. Leaders like Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela made new agreements with Cuba. They exchanged resources such as oil for Cuban doctors. But many of these countries now have economic problems, the threat of external intervention, and the rise of fascism. All of this puts these programmes at risk.

And Cuba has its own problems. As its leftist allies have become weaker, there are economic problems again and some doctors do not want to offer their services as much or cannot offer their services as much just to give support to other countries. Cuban doctors working abroad could earn between $1,000 and $1,500 a month compared to the $30 they receive working at home. But they know this money is a quarter of what Cuba receives in payment for their services. And the salaries are often not enough when they have to leave behind families and young children or work in dangerous and difficult conditions in remote areas, like treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. A few years before Bolsonaro, about 150 Cuban doctors in Brazil went to Brazilian courts to ask for their full salaries like other foreign doctors, rather than working as agents of Cuba.

The problems of Cuban doctors show us the differences between support and economic self-interest. It may be that an internationalism coming from generosity and respect was only possible in unusual political conditions, such as the revolutionary times of the 1960s and the 2000s. But the history and successes of Cuban internationalism have given us an alternative to the model of Western aid, which brings with it intervention and military objectives. It may still be a moral guide in our difficult times.

Sujatha Fernandes (@sujathatf) is a Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney. She is the author of several books, including Cuba Represent! and Close to the Edge. Her latest book is curated stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling.



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