East Timor: Cuba 'taught me to love people and be independent'

Dr Merita Armindo Monteiro (left). Photo by Tim Anderson.

In October, the Sydney branch of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS) toured Dr Merita Armindo Monteiro, an East Timorese doctor trained for free in Cuba. Armindo Monterio is also an activist in the Timor Leste-Cuba Friendship Association.

Since 2004, Cuba has undertaken a large-scale medical training program for East Timor and sent hundreds of Cuban medical personnel to work on the island. Cuban medical collaboration in the region has since been extended to Kiribati, Nauru, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. Papua New Guinea may soon benefit from Cuba’s generosity as well.

More than 1000 youths from East Timor and Pacific island nations have undergone medical training thanks to Cuba, most of them in Cuban universities. This “South-South” collaboration is transforming the health systems of these poor countries.

Socialist-oriented Cuba’s solidarity aid is a stark contrast to Australia’s oil grab in the Timor Sea and the miserly scale of its regional scholarship programs. Concern over Cuba’s growing prestige in Australian imperialism’s “backyard” may be one reason why the Australian government has expressed a desire to collaborate with Cuba in the Pacific.

Green Left Weekly’s Marce Cameron spoke with Armindo Monteiro. A longer version of this interview can be read at Cameron's blog , www.cubasocialistrenewal.blogspot.com .

What is the state of health care in East Timor and what has been the impact of Cuba’s medical collaboration in recent years?

The health system in East Timor is being built up on the basis of primary and secondary care. We have the Guido Valadares National Hospital in the capital, Dili, and five regional hospitals in Oecussi, Suai, Maliana, Maubissi and Baucau. We also have health clinics located in every corner of the country.

In the regional hospitals, we offer both major and minor health services, including some specialist services such as gynaecology, and we carry out some operations.

For very complicated cases we may need to refer or transfer the patient to the national hospital in Dili so they can receive more specialised attention; this is also where they have the most advanced medical equipment.

I see Cuba's medical presence in East Timor as very positive. When I left East Timor to begin my medical studies in Cuba in 2004, there were still only a small number of Cuban doctors in East Timor, but when I returned there were many more. They are distributed all over the country in the hospitals and in almost every local health clinic, attending to people who live very far from the nearest hospital.

In some cases, patients find it a bit difficult to get to a hospital so the Cuban doctors visit them in their homes. This is very good.

People often comment that they’re very satisfied with the medical attention they receive from the Cuban doctors. Many people tell me that the Cubans do an excellent job. I’m not saying this because I studied medicine in Cuba, but because of my own experience and because of what some East Timorese families tell me about the Cuban doctors. 

What motivated you to join the Cuban medical training program?

I’d always wanted to study medicine, but since my family is poor they couldn’t afford to pay for me to study medicine in another country such as Indonesia. So I decided to take part in the Cuban scholarship program.

Before that I had wanted to study nursing, but when I graduated from senior high school the nursing college was closed at that time. I then enrolled in the university [in Dili] and had been studying public health for two years when I was granted the scholarship to study medicine in Cuba. So I left public health to participate in this program.

Where did you study in Cuba?

I spent the whole of my time in Cuba in Ciego de Avila province in the centre of the country, initially in a place called Moron where I did nine months of preparatory studies before doing first and second year medicine in [the provincial capital] Ciego de Avila. I then returned to Moron to study my third, fourth and fifth years of medicine.

For my final year I returned to East Timor and studied at the Guido Valadares National Hospital in Dili.

Did you live with a Cuban family?

Not exactly with a Cuban family, because we had a scholarship and we stayed in a college with other companeros. A lot of people lived there, many students from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia; people who spoke English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, many languages. We all lived together very harmoniously like one big family. We keep in touch.

Can you share with us some reflections on your experience in Cuba?

The Cubans taught me many things. They taught me to be independent; they taught me to love people more than simply as human beings; they taught me to embody this great love and to express it in the treatment of my patients; they taught me how to live among the people; and they taught me how to make the most of the scarce resources available to them.

Cuba is a country with different ideas. It is blockaded by the United States, but it keeps going and it has developed very good health and education systems which I greatly admire.

Our country doesn’t have to change its ideas, but I do hope that one day with the development of its health and education systems, East Timor’s can be like Cuba’s.

What is the purpose of your visit to Australia?

I’m here to exchange ideas about the work of the two organisations, the ACFS and the Timor Leste-Cuba Friendship Association. In the first place, to support Cuba since both groups have the same objective. For example, to call for the release of the Cuban Five political prisoners in the US and campaigning to end the US blockade of Cuba.

We’ve been discussing various ideas to act on, about how to strengthen these links between Australia and Cuba, East Timor and Cuba and Australia and East Timor.

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