Thursday, December 07, 2006
Americans are among foreigners learning medicine in Castro's Cuba
Two American students, Jamar Williams, left, of Brooklyn and Tahirah Benyard, second left, of Newark, New Jersey, viewing a cadaver at their Cuban medical school. (Jose Goitia for The New York Times)
International Heal Tribune
Castro provides training, even for Americans
By Marc Lacey
Published: December 7, 2006
HAVANA: Anatomy is a part of medical education everywhere. Biochemistry, too. But a course in Cuban history?
Students at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, on a sprawling former naval base on the outskirts of this capital, are learning medicine Cuban style. That means poking at cadavers, peering into aging microscopes as well discussing the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power 50 years ago.
Cuban-trained doctors must be able to diagnose an ulcer, treat hypertension and also expound on the principles put forward by el commandante.
It was Fidel himself who in the late 1990s came up with the idea for this school, which trains doctors from throughout the Americas, not just in the ABCs of medicine but in the need for health care for the struggling masses.
The Cuban government offered full scholarships to poor students from throughout the region, and many, including 90 or so from the United States, have jumped at the chance of a free medical education, even with a bit of socialist theory thrown in. "They are completing the dreams of our commandante," said the dean, Dr. Juan Carrizo Estévez. "As he said, they are true missionaries, true apostles of health."
It is a strong personal desire to practice medicine that drives the students here, more than any affinity for Castro. The Americans in the program particularly insist that they want to be doctors, not politicians when they graduate. They recoil at the notion that they are propaganda tools for Havana, as critics suggest. "They ask no one to be political," said Jamar Williams, 27, of Brooklyn, who is a graduate of the State University of New York at Albany. "It's your choice. Many students decide to be political. They go to rallies and read political books. But you can lie low."
Still, Cuban authorities are eager to show off this exporter of Cuban doctor- philosophers as a sign of the country's compassion and clout in the world. The sympathetic portrayal of Castro, whom the United States government tars as a dictator who suppresses his people, is sinking in among some students.
"In my country, many see Fidel Castro as a bad leader," said Rolando Bonilla, 23, a Panamanian who is in his second year of the six-year program. "My view has changed. I now know what he represents for this country. I identify with him."
Fatima Flores, 20, was already an activist in Mexico who sympathized with Cuba's socialist government when she was accepted to the program.
"When we become doctors, we can spread his influence," she said of Castro. "Medicine is not just something scientific. It's a way of serving the public. Look at Che."
Che Guevara was a medical doctor before he became a revolutionary, one who fought alongside Fidel in the rugged reaches of eastern Cuba half a century ago and then was killed by government forces in Bolivia while further spreading the cause.
Tahirah Benyard, 27, a first-year student from Newark, New Jersey, said it was Cuba's offer to send doctors to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which was firmly rejected by the Bush administration, that prompted her to take a look at medical education in Cuba.
"I saw my people dying," she said. "They was no one willing to help. The government was saying everything is going to be fine."
Benyard said she was rejected from several American medical schools but could not have afforded the high costs anyway. Like other American students, she was screened for the Cuba program by Pastors for Peace, a New York organization opposed to Washington's trade embargo against the island.
Benyard hopes one day, after completing her studies and taking the required licensing exams, to practice in poor neighborhoods back home. Whether her education, which is decidedly low tech, is up to American standards remains to be seen, although the first American student to graduate last year did pass his medical boards in the United States. Reached in California, he declined to say whether he had found a residency willing to take him in.
If she makes it, Benyard will become one of a small pool of African-American doctors. Only about six percent of practicing physicians are members of ethnic minority groups, says the Association of American Medical Colleges, which recently launched its own program to boost the ranks of minority medical students.
Even before they were accepted in Cuba's program, most of the Americans had misgivings about the health care system in their own country. There is too much of a focus on the bottom line, they contend, and not enough compassion for the poor.
"Democracy is a great principle," said Williams, who wears long dreadlocks pulled back behind his head. "The idea that people can speak for themselves and govern themselves is a great concept. But people must be educated, and in order to be educated, people need health."
The education the students are receiving here extends outside of the classroom. "I've learned to become a minimalist," Williams said. "I don't necessarily need my iPod, all my gadgets and gismos, to survive."
He also does not need countless food options. In Cuba, the menu can be described as rice and beans, and then more rice and beans.
"The food was a problem for me," acknowledged Benyard, a graduate of Howard University in Washington. "In the U.S. we have these big plates and we eat, eat, eat. Here, I lost a lot of weight."
Living conditions are more rugged in other respects, as well. The electricity goes out with regularity. Internet access is limited. Toilet paper and soap are rationed. Sometimes the taps are dry. Then there is the issue of personal space.
"Being in a room with 18 girls, it teaches you patience," said Benyard, who was used to her one-bedroom apartment back home and described her current living conditions as like a military barracks.
Other students cite the American government's embargo as their biggest frustration. The "blockade," which is what the Cuban government and many of the American students call it, means no care packages, no visits from Mom and Dad, and the threat that the United States government might someday sanction them.
Last year, Washington did order the students home but the decision was later reversed after the Congressional Black Caucus, which supports the program, erupted in protest.
One topic that does not come up in classes is the specific ailment that put Castro in the hospital, forced him to cede power to his brother Raúl and has kept him out of the public eye ever since late July. His diagnosis, like so much else in Cuba, is a state secret, unknown to Cubans and visitors alike.