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COVID-19 Diplomacy Geopolitics Health Humanitarianism International Health Latin America Medicine United States

Internationalizing Cuban Medical Internationalism

A doctor’s surgery in Jaimanitas, Cuba. Source: Soydcuba, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

By Nicolas Friden, BA

As many different countries choose many different approaches in order to fight the virus, it still remains a huge task, even for the majority of countries in the developed world. As countries with a functioning health care system like France or even Germany struggle to contain the outbreak of the virus.

If the Covid-19 epidemic has shown one thing, it might well be that despite our belief we cannot control any and every disease. While somehow most Western countries might come through this pandemic relatively unharmed, it has still shown us that we have a lot to learn about our approach to a functioning medical system.

One country that frequently eclipses the rest of the World when it comes to medical expertise and a functioning heath care system is Cuba. While many are aware that Cuban doctors are sent to a lot of different countries, especially poorer ones, the proportions of this aid and cooperation system are less known.

However, if this system of health cooperation is functioning so well, why don’t any of the major countries in the World aspire to imitate some of its aspects in order to improve their own health diplomacy? Is the capitalist world too stubborn to adopt good ideas from other systems?

While Cuba is a relatively poor country compared to most of the Western World, this has never been an excuse for not providing medical aid and medical assistance to those most in need in any part of the World. For example, as Hurricane George devastated Haiti in 1998, Cuba immediately sent a force of 200 medical staff to help the local population. But the Cuban model doesn’t stop at immediate medical relief. This is actually only the beginning. After the initial damage is more or less under control, Cuban doctors and medical staff usually stay there and begin to train and treat the patients in the devastated country so as to provide development assistance to the local health authorities. This includes the process of transmitting knowledge to the local population by either training staff on the ground, or, more importantly even, by providing local students with the chance to acquire a medical degree in Cuba. This allows fully trained medical personnel to come back and be able to help the local population where it is most needed.[1]

This feat is even more impressive if you consider that every single step of the way is free of charge. This is seen by some as a true act of solidarity to the ones that are most in need. This is particularly astonishing as Cuba didn’t have a lot of support and of trading partners after the Soviet Union collapsed. In the early 1990s, male body weight in Cuba fell by 20-25 pound on average and public transportation was cut by 80%. Still, even in these difficult times for the country, its foreign policy regarding health remained the same, and Cuba continued assisting others where and when they needed it. [2]

So why is it that Western countries are neither discussing nor adopting the Cuban model to some extent?

The two parts of this question might well be closely linked to each other, as the West and in particular the United States have always had a hard time accepting Cuba’s existence in the first place. Since Cuba has a socialist government, it was always viewed as a possible threat in Washington, which imposed a trade embargo on the country, already in 1958. Writing this in 2021, when the Soviet Union is long gone, and an East West divide is not so visible anymore, it is astonishing that this embargo remains in place.

This might be one reason why Western media and policy-makers remain reluctant to fully acknowledge the real role Cuba plays when it comes to global medical relief. This whole situation really is an indictment on most powerful Western governments, as they remain unable to even acknowledge that their way of thinking might not be the best or even the only way.

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on stronger than ever (especially in the United States, the one country that will not in any case acknowledge Cuba’s know-how or accept its existence), the Cuban situation compared to the rest of the World remains under control for the moment and Cuba is only waiting for the opportunity to help its neighbours[3].

It remains difficult to see a change of course for the United States, when it comes to its relationship with Cuba and its reluctance to accept any kind of help or advice coming from this country, but maybe if the rest of the World starts implementing some Cuban medical policies, the US eventually could follow the same path.


[1] John M. Kirk, “Cuban Medical Internationalism and Its Role in Cuban Foreign Policy,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 20, no. 2 (August 5, 2009): 275–90.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Worldometers.info/coronavirus

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