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In Honduras, providing free health care is resistance

Published Jul 11, 2011 9:32 PM

Dr. Luther Castillo, who was among the first to apply for free medical education in Cuba, was in the first graduating class of the Latin American School of Medicine in 2005. While he was in New York for the June 30 memorial for the Rev. Lucius Walker, a man he called “the symbol of solidarity,” Castillo told Workers World about his life and his work setting up health care for the poor throughout the Caribbean.

As a child, Castillo dreamed of being a doctor. His family in Honduras’ Garifuna community would have had to work a full year to buy him just one book for medical school. But the National Autonomous University of Honduras would never have accepted a Garifuna into medical school.

The inhabitants of the 46 Garifuna communities in Honduras descend from West Africans captured in the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries who were taken to St. Vincent’s island. These men and women refused to become slaves for the French and the British. They fought the Europeans, escaping into the mountains, and joined the Indigenous Arawak people resisting colonization of the Caribbean.

The Arawak and Africans who intermarried were known as fierce fighters, the “Red Caribs.” On April 12, 1797, they commandeered five ships and sailed to Honduras, later also settling in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. In these countries they faced repression, and the British reduced their population by half through deliberate starvation and incarceration. Grandparents pass down this story of resistance to every Garifuna child.

Health care comes to oppressed Garifuna communities

Garifuna communities have always been terribly poor and faced racism in Honduras. For Castillo, Cuba’s founding of the LASM made his childhood dream of being a doctor possible. At graduation he set out to help his people in Honduras.

“In 2005 three Garifuna doctors, graduates from LASM, determined to build clinics for our people who had no access to health care. We got a piece of land donated, and we started to care for the poorest of the poor. We offered free health care and education in our clinics and in our hospital,” Castillo told Workers World.

When the military coup overthrew the Manuel Zelaya government in June 2009, the fascists’ first targets in Garifuna communities were Dr. Castillo’s clinics. The coup regime of Roberto Micheletti shut them down and destroyed them. Undaunted, Dr. Castillo continues to provide health care and has built a new hospital. Cuban doctors and medical students from LASM come to Honduras to provide free health care for the Garifuna people.

Miguel Facussé, the oligarch tied to the current, post-coup Pepe Lobo regime, employs death squads to crush the Indigenous community in the Baja Aguan region. Facussé is also a chief landowner in the Garifuna regions in northern Honduras. So the people there face gun thugs who hate the Cuban-trained doctors and nurses.

People of the region, both Indigenous and Garifuna, have lost their ancestral lands to the oligarchs and international corporations, along with the right to fish in the ocean.

“The Garifuna people have been in resistance since we were dragged out of Africa in the 17th century, and now through this resistance we are organizing to get land and health care and education for people,” Castillo said. “In the first five years our project has treated more than 12,000 people.”

With few funds available, Castillo and the doctors, nurses and volunteers in the 46 communities are also developing breast cancer awareness programs and a sickle cell anemia project.

Providing health care in Haiti

Castillo is not only organizing in Honduras. He is concerned about the development of medical care for all the people of the global South. “Seven thousand doctors have graduated from the LASM,” he said. “We are in the process of creating Medisur, [which is] building free health care in the poorest countries on earth under the organizing leadership of these Cuban-trained doctors.”

Since 1998, thousands of LASM-trained doctors have provided health care in Haiti. Two days after the Haitian earthquake struck, the Cuban government asked Dr. Castillo to organize an International Medical Brigade to help. He contacted more than 2,000 graduates of the LASM who volunteered to come. Castillo chose those who “could spend more than three months in Haiti.”

Some 930 health professionals, the largest medical contingent, arrived in Haiti. “The media says nothing about the brigade, but they reside in 10 different places in Haiti and are still there, helping combat the cholera epidemic,” said Castillo.

“We have a deep commitment to our patients, and the Haitian people love the Cuban-trained doctors. We live with them and offer the solidarity of medicine. It is easy for us from the Caribbean and Latin America to understand their struggle.” Castillo was referring to the Haitian revolutionaries who were the first people in the Americas to fight colonialism and slavery in the early 19th century and who supported Latin America’s liberator, Simón Bolívar. “They opened the path for the struggle. Now they are struggling for life under the guns of the U.N. and the U.S.”

“LASM doctors are trained in humanity and solidarity. We are standing with the Haitian people. This we call resistance in action.” Dr. Castillo is doing this in Honduras and Haiti, and MEDISUR will internationalize these projects. “We graduates of LASM with the support of Cuba are resisting the world’s privatized health care system.”