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Caught in the Middle

September 30, 2005

Recently, President Maduro, the president of Honduras, made a decision, to discontinue having Cuban physicians come to Honduras to perform “social service” a year of free medical care provided generally in the most rural clinics and health centers in Honduras because of the country’s inability to afford to employ other physicians.  Why eliminate a system of free, quality physicians in a poor country? 
After president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela took office in 1999 he began a similar program and now, according to the Wall Street Journal they have some 14,000 doctors, 3000 dentists and 1500 eye-care specialists working in the poor neighborhoods of Venezuela.

This is the same Hugo Chavez that Pat Robertson thought ought to be assassinated.  

So, speculation is that because Venezuela and Cuba are seen as threats to the US, “a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslin extremism” according to Robertson, the US government has asked its friends, in the case of Honduras, a friend very dependent on the US economy for its continued existence, to cease using Cuban doctors.  And, the Honduran government, a government (did I mention?) dependent on the US for trade, and economic aid complied.  

Now, there are problems with this system its true.  Cubans are suffering from lack of physicians as their physicians are exported to Venezuela in exchange for oil.  But despite this they have health statistics comparable to those in the United States with life expectancy among men at 74 years, women 77 years, and infant mortality at 12 per 1000.  The point is, these are well-trained, quality physicians.  
But, there will be no more Cuban doctors in Honduras.  

The official stance is that many Hondurans went to Cuba to study and now as they return to their country will fill the spots the Cubans are leaving.  But, these very rural clinics and health centers are unable to afford to pay the minimum salaries required, and so instead are staffed by nursing assistants who dispense medicine and medical advice to the best of their ability.  Well-trained Cuban doctors go into private practice where the pay is better and the working conditions more tolerable than that found in the overcrowded, overburdened public health system.   

An interesting side to this was the offers by both Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro after Hurricane Katrina.  When Castro offered to send over 100 doctors and tons of medical equipment and supplies, and when Hugo Chavez offered to send oil, how was our government to respond?  I laughed out loud when I heard of these offers, offers that the US government couldn’t accept, but which were much needed.  

But, I am no longer laughing.  When we went to the rehab hospital with tiny Saidi, unable to eat from a genetic disorder and slowly dying of malnutrition we were told that since there are no more Cuban doctors, she couldn’t be seen for another month.  We are hoping she is still alive in a month.  Everywhere Hondurans are feeling the pinch in an already overburdened system of having to wait longer, stand in lines, or in the most rural areas, to go without the health care they need.  What will become of the most vulnerable, the rural poor, the elderly, those living with disabilities and children of Honduras caught in the middle of these political decisions?
Bruce and Linda Hanson,
Seth and Kesia   

Bruce and Linda Hanson are missionaries who serve with the Evangelical and Reformed Church of Honduras assigned to the Association of Evangelical Institutions of Honduras (AIEH). He serves in the health ministries as a nurse.  Linda serves with her pastoral duties and also works as a physical therapist.

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