Henry Reeve Brigade members arrive in Havana in June. Cuban doctors went to Italy in March to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic in the Lombardy region. Photo: Yamil Lage / Pool / AFP

In 2004, Dr Jose Armando Arronte Villamarin was posted to head a Cuban medical brigade in Namibia. Cuban medical personnel first came to what was then South West Africa in 1975 alongside Cuban soldiers assisting the South West African People’s Organization in the fight for the liberation of their country from the apartheid South African military.

Dr Arronte Villamarin told me how much he has enjoyed his work, not only during his time in what is now Namibia, which lasted until 2007, but also – strikingly – in the United States.

I had no idea that Cuban medical personnel had served in the US, which has, since the revolution of 1959, tried to overthrow the government of Cuba.

The role of Cuban doctors and nurses in poor countries is in the spotlight amid a push for Havana’s Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade to be awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. The initiative, which started in Greece, has attracted at least 30,000 signatures.

Prominent backers include the former president of Ecuador Rafael Correa, actors Danny Glover and Mark Ruffalo, and writers Alice Walker and Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky said, “Cuba is the only country to have shown genuine internationalism during this coronavirus crisis.”

Cuba’s Fidel Castro encouraged the formation of the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade. Arronte Villamarin’s medical team in Namibia became part of this new brigade.

In 2005, Arronte Villamarin was in Havana for the annual meeting of the chiefs of Cuba’s medical brigades. That was when Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans, destroying the city and putting the entire southern half of Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast in serious peril. Cuba offered to send medical teams to help but US president George W Bush refused.

If Bush said not to come to the United States, then how did Arronte Villamarín find himself there?

In 2017, thanks to the initiative of the US Congressional Black Caucus, members of the Henry Reeve brigade – including Arronte Villamarin – went to Chicago to study and treat high rates of infant mortality. The infant mortality rate among black mothers in the US in 2018 was 11.7 per 1,000 live births, while it was 6 per 1,000 for white mothers. In Cuba, the rate in 2019 was 5.1 per 1,000 live births.

Arronte Villamarin tells me he was shocked by what he saw. He and his colleagues tried to do the very best they could, but they were only in Chicago for five months. It was just not enough time to make a difference.

Almost totally isolated

The US government has continued attacking Cuban medical internationalism right up to the current pandemic, making wild allegations against the program that disparage the medical workers.

Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba who teaches in the United States, told Reuters recently that the US is “almost totally isolated” when it comes to its Cuba policy. Each year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has voted to end the US-imposed embargo on the island. In 2019, 187 countries said the embargo must end, while the US stood with two of its closest allies, Brazil and Israel. Ambassador Hare’s phrase “almost totally isolated” is an understatement.

Dr Daymarelis Ortega Rodriguez, the chief of the Henry Reeve brigade in Barbados, told me that her work in the brigade gives her immense pride.

“I enlisted to be part of this brigade by my own will,” she said, “not as a slave or exploited person. I am a fighter for life, for peace, and for human welfare.”

Ortega Rodríguez smiled as she responded the bizarre accusation that the Cuban government treats its doctors like slaves.

In June 2019, US Senator Marco Rubio called Cuban medical internationalism “modern-day slavery.” Rubio, along with Senators Ted Cruz and Rick Scott, introduced the Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Act of 2020, which would target countries that take assistance from the Cuban doctors.

The health minister of Barbados, Jeffrey Bostic, responded sharply: “Barbados is a sovereign country and we make decisions in the interest of the country just like other countries large and small. We have engaged the nurses from Cuba … and we are not going to buckle under the pressure of any other nation.”

Commitments to health

Ortega Rodriguez is sitting on a couch in Barbados, alongside nurse Yandy Perez, who is part of the brigade. They tell me what they are doing in Barbados and what they had done previously.

Both Ortega Rodriguez and Perez are in the midst of the fight against Covid-19. Perez had been in Vietnam, while Ortega Rodríguez had spent time in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, and in Antigua. Perez says the work in Vietnam or Barbados was not for personal gain. “Why do you spend years outside Cuba?” I asked them. “We do it out of conviction,” said Perez, “out of solidarity. We do it from the heart.”

Dr Jany Cabrera Paumier has been a physician since 2012 and an internist since 2016. She is talking to me from Belize, where she is on her first medical internationalist mission.

She has a four-year-old daughter who lives in Santiago de Cuba and her voice breaks as she says that it will be her daughter’s birthday in a few days. “I decided that I wanted to be part of this brigade and its honorable work for the world,” Cabrera Paumier told me. “Believe me, my choice could not make me prouder to be Cuban.”

This year, the Henry Reeve brigade celebrates 15 years of work, although Cuban medical internationalism goes back to 1960.

Cabrera Paumier’s daughter is proud of her mother. So is Dr Ortega Rodriguez’ son. So are Arronte Villamarin’s children, a son who is a dental surgeon and a daughter who is in medical school. They follow in their father’s footsteps.

It is not easy to be away from their families, but each of these medical workers thinks that it is worthwhile. “I came to Belize to help people to do the best for their own country,” Cabrera Paumier told me.

On September 26, these Cuban doctors join Danny Glover and Vijay Prashad to talk about the campaign for the Cuban doctors to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest book is Washington Bullets, with an introduction by Evo Morales Ayma.