Cuba as a Humanitarian Model in the 21st Century

A quick Google search of “Cuba Humanitarian Aid” generates countless pages of do-gooders soliciting donations for aid to Cuban citizens. The general perception of United States citizens remains that Cuba is suffering under a harsh dictator and needs our help for liberation. Yet, these individuals seem unaware of Cuba’s impressive development progress. For example, Cuba and the US have the exact same life expectancy: 79 years.[1] Cuba also has a 100 percent literacy rate,[2] likely thanks to their annual dedication of ten percent of their national budget for education spending (compared with just two percent in the US).[3] Further, their health care system is one of the best in the world; there are 6.7 physicians per 1,000 people,[4] preventive care is prioritized, every individual is visited at least once a year at home by a health care provider, and the infant mortality rate is lower than in the US at 5 per 1,000 live births.[5]

In addition to their exceptionally effective domestic policies, Cuba also serves our global community as a top donor of humanitarian aid. Official Cuban reports claim that between 1961 and 2008, 270,743 Cubans served in a total of 154 countries.[6] While some advance that these assistance endeavors were initially rooted in efforts to promote pro-Cuban sentiment internationally and advertise their socialist views, I argue that the role of Cuban assistance has now changed from its inception in the early 1960s. In the twenty first century, Cuba engages with our international community in a productive and helpful manner, gaining allies along the way, but more importantly, acting in accordance with the ideological principles upon which the nation is designed.

Cuba’s first major aid mission was in support of Algerian troops during their war of independence against France (which plagued the nation from 1954 to 1962).[7] This mission, and another to Chile in 1960 to provide earthquake relief, first exemplified Cuba’s comparative advantage for international aid. Due to their extensive state control, the nation was able to quickly mobilize military and medical professionals, could send these individuals into sub-optimal conditions, and could request their prolonged deployment without significant domestic resistance.

Specifically, Cuba’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster serves as an example supporting the hypothesis that Cuba acts for more than purely political reasons. While the international community had responded swiftly and effectively to the immediate crisis, a pervasive body of evidence suggested that the medical impacts of the nuclear explosion were likely to remain devastating for the long term. Responding to these claims, Cuba created the “Chernobyl Children” program. This large initiative promised to provide free, comprehensive medical care for all affected kids ages 5 to 15.[8] For nearly 25 years, Cuban doctors have provided curative care for a total of 24,000 children.[9] In accordance with typical Cuban health care norms, children at the Tarará Pediatric Hospital are treated with an integrative approach – they’re served by a wide variety of specialists, and receive access to cutting-edge Cuban medical treatments, such as a slew of new vaccines, biotechnology resources, and more.[10]

This integrative approach to disaster relief treatment has inspired others to change their practices. In 2003, the Ukrainian parliament voted to make the Chernobyl Children program an official government initiative, finally agreeing to allocate funds to its development. Further, the treatment center at Tarará Pediatric Hospital in Cuba has grown and now treats young disaster victims from all over the world. For example, earthquake victims from Armenia, those affected with Cesium 137 poisoning in Brazil, and traumatized evacuees following a volcanic eruption on the small island of Montserrat have all benefitted from the hospital’s free services.[11]

In addition to welcoming international disaster victims to their domestic hospitals, Cuba also sends doctors and resources all over the world. For example, in the midst of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Cuba sent six tons of medical supplies and drugs to affected Palestinians;[12] and in the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, Cuban doctors were the first to arrive on the ground. Moreover, with 930 total healthcare professionals involved, they comprised the largest contingent of aid workers for the disaster. With operating rooms open 18 hours a day and a donation of 400,000 tetanus vaccines for the wounded, Cuban aid saved countless lives.[13] Yet, the media largely neglected to cover their efforts, according to an AlJazeera report. Accordingly, the Western media has largely neglected to cover any “aid which comes from unexpected places,” such as Venezuela’s provision of free oil until the nation recovers, and a significant donation of $70 million from Brazil.[14]

Considering that Cuba’s assistance during humanitarian emergencies is not particularly praised in the media, it’s unlikely that they engage in such initiatives solely for self-promotion. However, these actions do seem to promote pro-Cuban sentiment among other nations. For example, when in October 2014, the United Nations voted for the twenty-third consecutive year to urge the US to “end the economic commercial, and financial embargo against Cuba,” the only nations that opposed the resolution were the US and Israel. This year, support was especially strong as many countries praised Cuba for its exceptional response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.[15] They’re the only nation other than the US to send substantial human resources to the region.[16] As Gail Reed, co-founder of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) explained: “This is something built into the psyche of Cuban doctors and nurses—the idea that ‘I am a public servant…It’s coming from a commitment to make health care a universally accepted right.”[17]

Cuba’s magnanimous outlook makes them a model for the world. In addition to the aforementioned efforts, the nation also founded the Latin American Medical School (ELAM), which offers scholarships to low income students from all over the world for medical school with the requirement that they return home after graduation to serve as health workers. So far 23,000 individuals from 83 countries have graduated (including some from the US); there are an additional 10,000 students currently enrolled. This enterprise came from Cuban’s belief that after providing disaster relief, leaving a nation behind without an adequate healthcare system was irresponsible.[18]

Examples such as the ELAM fill my heart with optimism; Cuba is an example of a nation that more of us should try to emulate. Despite their harsh economic prospects, and despite over 50 years of stigmatization, they still serve as one of the most responsible and globally minded countries. A deep commitment to collaboration is vital for our aggregate success in the twenty first century; Cuba shines as a ray of hope, helping me believe a more synergetic future is possible for the US and for the world.

Sophia Kecskes (’17) is a Political Science major in Pierson College, as well as executive editor of the publication.


[1] “Life Expectancy at Birth, Total (Years),” The World Bank, 2014, accessed November 5, 2014. <>.

[2] “Literacy rate, adult total (% of people ages 15 and above),” The World Bank, 2014, accessed November 5, 2014, <>.

[3] “Latin lessons: What can we learn from the world’s most ambitious literacy campaign?,” The Independent, November 7, 2010, accessed November 5, 2014, <>.

[4] “Physicians (per 1,000 people),” The World Bank, 2014, accessed November 5, 2014. <>.

[5] Edward W. Campion, and Stephen Morrissey, “A Different Model — Medical Care in Cuba,” New England Journal of Medicine 358 (2013): 297-299.

[6] Maria C. Werlau, “Cuba’s Health-Care Diplomacy: The Business of Humanitarianism,” World Affairs Journal, March/April 2013, accessed November 5, 2014, <>.

[7] Werlau, “Cuba’s Health-Care Diplomacy.”

[8] Conner Gorey, “Cuba Marks 15 Years Treating Chernobyl Victims,” Medical Education Cooperation With Cuba 7.5 (2005): 28-29.

[9] “Chernobyl Victims Treated in Cuba,” Reuters, March 23, 2010, accessed November 8, 2014. <>.

[10] Gorey, “Cuba Marks 15 Years Treating Chernobyl Victims.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Cuba sends six-ton medical aid shipment to Gaza,” Agence France-Presse, September 11, 2014, accessed November 8, 2014, <>.

[13] Tom Fawthrop, “Cuba’s aid ignored by the media?” AlJazeera, February 16, 2010, accessed November 8, 2014, <>.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mirjam Donath and Louis Charbonneau, “For 23rd time, U.N. nations urge end to U.S. embargo on Cuba,” Reuters, October 28, 2014, accessed November 8, 2014, <>.

[16] Alexandra Sifferlin, “Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola,” Time, November 5, 2014, accessed November 8, 2014, <>.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.