Our Cuban medical heroes

Andrew Donaldson on Ramaphosa's decision to nominate Havana’s cash cows for the Nobel Prize, and other matters


IT is hardly surprising that Cyril Ramaphosa and the government are supporting the nomination of the Cuban medical brigades for the Nobel Peace Prize. The cabinet, after all, are skape and anyone and everyone who counts as a comrade in their lopsided geopolitical diorama is on board with the project, so why shouldn’t they flock on through as well?

Look, there’s Venezuela! Italy! Portugal! There’s Jeremy Corbyn, the famous Magic Grandpa! There’s Danny Glover! Hollywood clout! Here’s the petition. Please Sign! International solidarity, and so on…

However, and for all that, I have no objection to the Cubans getting the prize.

They do get so little as it is.

No, seriously. It’s true that the brigades continue to do commendable work in fighting the pandemic. There are about 3 600 of these Cuban health professionals in 35 countries, including South Africa. They deserve recognition, as all frontline health professionals do. And, besides, giving them the Nobel is cheaper than paying them. But we are getting ahead of ourselves…

Squirrel is not entirely wrong, for example, when he suggests, as he did in his Monday evening “family talk”, that the arrival of the 200 or so Cuban doctors in April last year to assist in the country’s fight against the coronavirus was a “selfless” intervention.

However, expressing gratitude on behalf of the nation “for this great demonstration of solidarity and humanity” is laying it on a bit thick. Especially as said nation could count among its citizens some of the finest health professionals in the world. Who have not exactly been standing idly by as the under-resourced health system has buckled under the strain of the pandemic. This in addition to the strains of crippling mismanagement, gross incompetence and criminal negligence. Like, just saying.

Let’s not forget that the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialised in Disaster Situations and Serious Epidemics, to give them their full official title, are somewhat mired in controversy over pay.

Simply put, the brigades are widely seen as Havana’s cash cows.

Their current pandemic work in both wealthy western and poorer nations has further divided international opinion over Cuba’s policy of despatching thousands of medics to work abroad in mainly developing countries in return for hard currency.

It’s the Americans who have the most difficulty with this.

While the brigades are hailed as a beacon of solidarity by socialists, the US state department has denounced them as a trafficking scheme. It is alleged that, apart from human rights violations, the programme is used by Havana to covertly deploy intelligence agents in foreign countries.

As a result, the doctors have become political footballs; left-wing governments welcome them while right-wing ones want them out.

Cuba may have the upper hand for now. The country has one of the lowest Covid-19 infection and mortality rates in the Americas. The fact that it is an island nation, and an economically isolated one at that, may have helped in this regard.

The Trump administration effectively sunk the rapprochement of Cuba-US relations put in motion by Barack Obama, and it’s not yet clear how the Biden presidency, with its commitment to re-enter international alliances and repair broken accords, will tackle this foreign policy challenge. Until then, US hostility towards Havana stands, and the sanctions remain in force.

Cuba’s Covid-19 success has nevertheless raised the brigades’ international reputation while frustrating US attempts to deny the communist state its chief source of foreign exchange, which in 2018 was worth some $6.2-billion.

Stalwart South Africa is a regular contributor to the coffers. It’s now widely held that the Cuban doctors have been contracted at a cost of R240-million a year. Accounts vary as to the exact number of medics. Squirrel says there are 217. A Daily Maverick report pegs it at 187. Rounding the figure off to 200, as I’ve done, suggests the doctors are paid a salary of about R100 000 a month. (The Maverick says it may be as high as R130 000.)

The Cuban medics, however, get very little of this money. This, at least, is according to former Bolivian health minister, Aníbal Cruz, who sent 705 Cuban doctors home in November 2019 following the fall of the leftwing Evo Morales government.

Cruz told the Financial Times that his country, one of the poorest in South America, paid Havana almost $150-million over 13 years for medical personnel. This included a monthly salary of some $1 000 for each doctor – about 80 per cent of which was pocketed by the Cuban government.

Cruz also told the newspaper that many of the personnel deployed in Bolivia were not medics but “political operators” and state agents: “This was a work of political indoctrination camouflaged as a medical solidarity mission.”

Cuban officials have, over the years, routinely dismissed such allegations.

But there’s no denying the wages offered to Cuban medics are an incentive to work abroad. One registered nurse who had worked in Ecuador told the FT that health workers saw the missions as a chance to earn more than the $70 to $100 a month they were paid at home. But even if wages are doubled or tripled, it’s still a pitiful fraction of what host countries pay for their services.

In May 2019, for example, the BBC cited a report by Prisoners Defenders, an organisation campaigning for human rights in Cuba, which claimed that doctors received between 10 per cent and 25 per cent of the salaries paid by host countries. The rest went to the Cuban authorities.

The NGO further claimed that 89 per cent of medics told them they had no prior knowledge of where they would be posted within a host country; 41 per cent said that, upon arrival in a country, their passports were taken by Cuban officials; 91 per cent complained of intense scrutiny by Cuban security agents while working abroad; the same number reported they were asked to spy on colleagues and pass on information to security officials; 57 per cent said they did not volunteer to join a mission, but felt obliged to so so; and 39 per cent said they were “strongly pressured” into serving in the missions.

Little wonder then that Human Rights Watch has criticised the “draconian” restrictions on freedom of expression, privacy and movement imposed on the medics. “Cuban doctors deployed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic provide valuable services to many communities,” HRW’s Americas director, José Miguel Vivanco, has said, “but at the expense of their most basic freedoms.”

Squirrel is aware of such abuses, but he ignores them because he believes the compañero schtick will restore badly-needed socialist cred. It is never easy, you know, for the People’s Billionaire.

But, rather than be just another pimple on the backside that is the clamour to fling a prize at the Cubans, a South African president with nous and backbone would have instead nominated Dr Imtiaz Ismail Sooliman and his Gift of the Givers Foundation for the Nobel.

The reasons for this are glaringly obvious. The foundation has doled out R3.2-billion in aid to some 44 territories, including Haiti, Gaza, Bosnia, Pakistan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Syria, Malawi and Mozambique. In the 28 years of its existence it has grown to become the largest disaster response NGO of African origin on the continent and one of the most effective. More importantly, it is a success story that is entirely homegrown – and there’s nothing like backing your own mense, you’d think.


Gripes of wrath

Alcohol is back on sale. This is welcome news, especially for those who are able to enjoy a bit of lady petrol without cluttering up the nearest emergency ward with trauma patients. Still, and despite the buzz of wellbeing that comes with the third glass of Chenin, a nagging doubt persists: did the Potemkin president have permission to lift the ban? How long, for example, before prime minister Nkosazana “The Clarice” Dlamini-Zuma simpers that, no, it’s a mistake, the embargo remains and it’s back to saving the Western Cape from wine monopoly capital?

I ask only because on the very eve of Squirrel’s announcement, his brute of a police minister, Cheek Bile, was warning the nation that the ban would now be enforced more harshly than ever, even if South Africans may not like him for doing so. Perhaps he didn’t get the memo. Or if he did, he didn’t bother to read it. But no matter. His beef, it seems, is that he wants the ban to remain in place beyond the lockdown. A puritan thing, obviously, this maniacal concern that other people are enjoying themselves.

Bile claims he is not against alcohol, only the way we consume it. We “overdo it”, are “swimming in it” and we lose our dignity after drinking. Some people have even died as a result of drinking. And this is true. Consider the case of Collins Khoza, beaten to death by security forces for having a beer in the yard of his Alexandra township home.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is Bile’s belief that he really is a likeable fellow and that his prohibitionary fervour may suddenly make him unpopular, that our high regard for the halfwit will now plummet. Is he not aware of how little we think of him as it is? What on earth is he drinking?

The Tshwane Funnies

Piet Rampedi, “prize-winning” investigative reporter, began his new job as Pretoria News editor on Monday. It’s too early to tell what sort of mess he’s going to make of it, but this was nevertheless a watershed moment, the glorious union of one institution with a renowned history of groundbreaking and credible journalism with another.

We know this because his boss, Iqbal Survé, has said so: “Piet is a courageous journalist who boldly and truthfully reports the news that needs to be told. We have watched his development through the [Independent] group and have been enthused by his progress and his adherence to journalism’s highest tenets.”

Break out the happy meals, then. Bring on those elephants and polish the trumpets. Let readers in the Jacaranda City rejoice and dance in the streets. But let us first adhere to journalism’s other, more base tenets. Considering what Despiqbal means by “news that needs to be told”, it’s noteworthy that one anagram of the new editor’s name is “Impaired Pet”. Enough said.

A blow to the Fallists

To Devon and distant Exeter, where the local council has rescinded its own decision, passed in July last year, to remove a statue of Sir Redvers Buller, which has stood in the town for the past 115 years.

This week’s decision was due to the announcement last month of regulations by Robert Jenrick, secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, which state that local authorities “retain and explain” monuments rather than remove them, and that final decisions in this regard be granted to the secretary of state.

Much explaining, it seems, is needed regarding the retaining of this particular monument.

The Times reported this morning that, following widespread Black Lives Matter protests last summer, a banner reading “Wanted for war crimes” had been draped over the statue, which features the general sitting on his favourite horse, Biffen. As a result, there were concerns of what the newspaper coyly referred to as a “celebration of colonial activity”.

An “equality impact report” was duly commissioned by the council, which concluded: “The General Buller statue represents the patriarchal structures of empire and colonialism which impact negatively on women and anyone who does not define themselves in binary gender terms. The consultation will need to ensure that the views of women, transgender and non-binary people are captured and given due weight.”

South Africans who visit the statue will no doubt notice the inscription at its base: “He saved Natal.” Some may even reflect on why the province needed saving, and from who. Buller distinguished himself in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, and was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery under fire – or, more accurately, bravery under spear – at the Battle of Hlobane, the second of the British army’s defeats in that campaign.

He fared less well against the Bores, as the pompous Jacob Rees-Mogg calls them. Following early defeats in the South African War, Buller was replaced as commander in chief of the British forces by Lord Roberts in January 1900. He was equally ineffective as second-in-command and further defeats followed, earning him the nickname “Reverse Buller”. In that regard, the Exeter Council’s about-face is perhaps fitting. Buller’s uncanny ability to avoid bloodier contact with the enemy nevertheless endeared him to many of his troops – and their foes.

My own feeling is that the statue’s inscription about saving Natal be replaced with “Buffoon on Biffen”. This may help in finding common ground in what is obviously a fiercely divisive debate about the statues.

Those who oppose the Fallists often declare, rather fatuously, that tearing down the monuments will not change history. Which is true. But it does help if you actually know a thing or two about the past. Dr Todd Gray, historian at Exeter University, had this to say of the Buller statue:

“The argument against him was that he was involved in concentration camps, but that’s not true. I think that’s bad history. People put two and two together and got ten. If he was a less obvious statue then perhaps he would get away with it but it’s in a very public place. He’s a very obvious representative of the British Empire. It’s not so much about race as subjugating other people, but if we took away all statues where would that leave us? I don’t think people have thought this through carefully. I wonder if people are desperately trying to show their sympathy with Black Lives Matter.”

When he set out to research his acclaimed new bookEmpireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (Penguin/Viking), author Sathnan Sanghera was amazed to discover that what he’d been taught of colonial history was exceptionally poor – and his education was not particularly shabby: grammar school and then a first-class degree in English Language and Literature from Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Sanghera was taught, he writes, to value western history above its non-western counterpart, and encouraged to belittle most non-western thought, history and literary forms as irrational and illogical. He was not “untypical” in his ignorance, and he’s met Oxbridge history graduates who complain they were taught “almost nothing about Britain’s empire”.

He suggests that, if his own “crash course” in the colonial past has taught him anything, it’s that activists should be positive. The high profile campaigns for the removal of monuments or the renaming of streets has at least taught Britons more about their past than what they were ever taught in school.

“But tearing down things also provokes vigorous opposition,” he writes, “exciting adversaries who feel obliged to launch counter-campaigns, and more would be achieved by campaigns to create and build.” One of many examples he cites in this regard is the decision to erect, alongside the statue of Jan Smuts, one of another of Cambridge’s alumni, World Health Organisation co-founder Szeming Sze.

It all seems so sensible and practical. But, of course, many people who don’t know any better will vigorously object to such common sense. As they say, you can’t wipe out the past. Ignorance always wins the argument, because it shouts the loudest.

Long walk to thiefdom

Jacob Zuma has boldly declared that he is prepared to go to prison on a matter of principle. Most South Africans agree that he should do just that. On a matter of principle. Accused Number One’s stance, however, concerns Judge Raymond Zondo’s refusal to recuse himself as chair of the commission into state capture.

There’s an alleged conflict of interest, as Zondo had once fathered a child with a woman that the Thief in Chief was somehow related to. As Zuma put it in a statementhe may even have penned himself: “Perhaps by western culture’s standard of defining kinship he may be correct if the yardstick is of family events attended or family invitations issued.”

This is all very vague and foggy. Meanwhile, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), we have taken delivery of an anonymous envelope containing what appears to the scraps an early draft of a possible statement from the dock:

“… a society in which I will live together in harmony with my blessers. This is a deal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is a deal for which I am prepared to lie. And steal. And cheat…”