Dr. Jorge Balseiro
Director of the University Hospital of Psychiatry in the city of
Camaguey, Cuba. He is a
specialist in psychiatry and health administration and Auxiliary
Professor of Medical Sciences at the university. He is a member
of the Henry Reeve Cuban Internationalist Medical Brigade1
and a director of the Brigade’s field hospital in the city of
was the epicenter of the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010.
Dr. Balseiro Estevez was invited on a speaking tour to
some 15 cities across Canada in
October and November 2011. The tour was organized by the
Canadian Network on Cuba and its local affiliates, with sponsorship
from a broad range of trade unions, health professionals and Haiti
Roger Annis of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) sat down with Dr.
Balseiro Estevez on Oct. 30 in Vancouver
for an interview about the Cuban medical mission’s
accomplishments in Haiti and the
challenges that lie ahead.
Could you describe the origin of Cuba’s medical brigade to Haiti?
Dr. Jorge Balseiro
it began in 1998. Following the devastation of Hurricane George
that year, Fidel Castro announced to the Cuban people that the
country would undertake a commitment to deliver important health
services to the Haitian people in the form of a volunteer,
internationalist medical brigade. A bilateral agreement was
signed between the governments of
The Ministry of Public Health and Population of the
Haitian government decided where the brigade’s services were
most needed. As much as possible, it would make use of existing
medical services and infrastructure. The first Cuban doctor
arrived in Port au Prince in December of that first year. In
1999, 63 family medicine and specialist doctors arrived.
That same year, the two governments began to plan
Haiti’s first ever medical
since that first year?
JBE: The numbers
of doctors increased. In 2001, a Faculty of Health Sciences
opened at the
State University in Port-au-Prince. [In
reality, the Faculty of Health Sciences which opened in 2001 was
based at the University of the Aristide Foundation (UniFA) in
Tabarre, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. It was closed and
used as a barracks by U.S. troops immediately following the
February 29, 2004 coup d'état and was reopened on September 27,
Unfortunately, the school was closed down by the coup d’etat of
2004. We were obliged to move the students to
if they wished to continue to study. Three hundred and
twenty-one of them moved to the campus of the Latin America
School of Medicine in Santiago de Cuba. Seventy students per year
continued to enroll in the School.
Notwithstanding the coup, Cuba brought “Operation Miracle” to Haiti in 2005.
This is the joint eye care program with the Government of
Venezuela that has improved or restored eyesight to nearly two
million people in Latin America,
notably through cataract surgery. We opened three ophthalmology
that year – In
Port-au-Prince, Aquin (southwest) and Trou du Nord (northeast).
In December, 2006, we signed an agreement with the
Government of Haiti, and in cooperation with
Venezuela, to establish ten
comprehensive diagnostic centers. The first one to be completed
was in Cite Soleil in February 2007. These centers were also to
be used for training of Haitian medical students.
describe what happened following the earthquake.
At the time of the earthquake, there were 367 Cuban doctors,
health workers and technicians serving in
Haiti. Within hours of the
earthquake, airplanes from Cuba were bringing complete field
hospitals and 1,500 more medical personnel. I arrived five days
following the earthquake.
ther medical personnel then followed, including 361
graduates of the Latin American School of Medicine from other
countries in Latin America and fifth year Haitian medical
students and Haitian resident doctors in Cuba.
There were five comprehensive diagnostic centers in
operation in the earthquake zone, plus our brigade personnel
went to work in Haitian institutions. We quickly established six
The first of those additional 1,500 medical personnel
were those who had already worked in
Haiti. All of our doctors were
paired up with the Haitian students, as much as possible.
Haitians have been served by Cuba’s medical mission?
According to my most recent statistics from several weeks ago,
since 1998, the Henry Reeve Cuban Internationalist
Medical Brigade has
than 18 million cases in
Haiti. We have performed
304,577 surgeries and vaccinated 1,501,076 people. We estimate
the number of lives we have saved is 284,239.
Since the earthquake, we have treated 347,601 people and
performed 8,870 surgeries. We have delivered 1,631 babies and
vaccinated 74,493 people.
The post-earthquake work is very complex, with large
numbers of injured people to treat. Rehabilitation services have
been provided to 75,013 people. So far, 75 people have received
prostheses to replace lost limbs. Psycho-social treatment is
also needed for survivors. 116,000 children, for example, are
receiving some form of psycho-social assistance.
Rodent and mosquito control in communities and in the
survivor camps is an important part of our work, too.
outbreak must have been quite a burden to pile onto the existing
Yes, but we had no choice but to respond quickly. The Brigade
established 44 cholera treatment units (complete with testing
laboratories) and 23 cholera treatment centers. Those numbers
are today at 45 and two, respectively. We also have 46 cholera
detection units in operation in communities.
Our total number of patients in the first year of the
epidemic was 76,130. Thirty percent of those were under the age
of 15. We suffered 272 deaths in the areas we were serving, but
we are very proud to report that we have had no deaths in the
past 267 days. Our mortality rate from cholera has declined to
0.36% per patient, compared to the country-wide rate of 1.41%.
So give us a
summary of Cuba’s
medical presence in
At present we have 786 Cuban doctors and health workers in Haiti, and we are working with an
additional 21 from Latin American countries. Since the
earthquake, we have received US$23 million in financial
assistance from international donors.
We have 23 communal (provincial) hospitals in operation
and ten comprehensive diagnostic centers (operated in
cooperation with Venezuela). We have a total of 30
rehabilitation rooms. There are 28 active epidemiological
surveillance and control programs (surveying for such threats as
malaria and dengue). There are 12 health (family doctor) centers
and we are planning to build a laboratory for producing
prostheses and three electrotechnical workshops (for equipment
maintenance and repair). Two Operation Miracle clinics are still
in operation and we are providing technical advice as well as
vaccines for vaccination programs.2
say a few words about your personal experiences?
I work at the field hospital in Léogâne (west of
Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of the
earthquake). Our work is very complex. I would like to give you
an idea of the scope and complexity of the treatment we provide
to our patients.
We have to deliver medical services. We have treated some
48,00 patients and performed 500 surgeries and 150 deliveries.
We have fitted 70 amputees with prostheses. The patients
require constant care and follow-up, because as a child or
adolescent grows, or as a wound heals from an amputation heals,
the prosthesis is outgrown and must be replaced. So we must
equip ourselves with the capacity to make new ones.
Children and new mothers require special care. We have a
lot of activities to occupy the children and help to heal their
Our work is performed in tents, so we must take special
care to keep everything hygienic. (There is a very good hospital
building in Léogâne that is under-utilized but we have been
unable to come to an agreement to help open up the unused
sections of the facility.)
Food and clean water must be supplied, not only for our
hospital but also for the surrounding community, as needed.
Everything we do we must insert training of student doctors or
health workers. And we must conduct health promotion and
education among the population we are serving.
So you see, these are very challenging conditions in
which we are working.
International Donors Conference for
on Mar. 31, 2010, Cuba
outlined a plan whereby the world could assist Haiti in creating a comprehensive,
national health care system. I believe Cuba mentioned a figure of $170
million per year for the next five years to establish such a
system. Is this proposal moving forward, and what are the main
obstacles to its success?
I think this could be moved forward with the collaboration of
all countries. The
main obstacle is the unfulfilled financial and other promises by
some. The world must be more active in fulfilling on time its
agreements and commitments to Haiti.
I am very hopeful for
Haiti’s future. As Fidel has
better world is possible.” The countries of the world must
come together and assist Haiti to have a better future.
Henry Reeve Cuban Internationalist Medical Brigade was created
in 2005 for the purpose of disaster medical relief anywhere in
the world. It's namesake, Henry Reeve, was born in the United States in 1850. In 1869,
Reeve arrived in Cuba
as part of a volunteer, expeditionary force from the
to assist Cuba
in its fight for independence from
Spain. He served with
distinction in the Cuban Army for 7 years and died in battle in
2) During a visit to Cuba by Haitian President Michel
Martelly on Nov 15-17, 2011, the two countries agreed to expand
services at seven of the hospitals and five of the diagnostic
centers mentioned in this paragraph.