Good news from East Timor

Issue 
Photo by Tim Anderson.

A special film screening will take place in Petersham, Sydney on September 28 to celebrate the graduation of the first 18 East Timorese students through Cuba's medical training aid program, which began in East Timor in 2003.

The event will be presented by Dr Tim Anderson of the University of Sydney, who has followed the journeys of these doctors from the start. He will present his films The Doctors of Tomorrow and The Pacific School of Medicine, as well as footage from the recent graduation ceremony.

Under the program, most of the students spend years studying at the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba before returning to the medical faculty in East Timor to complete their studies. Anderson said more than 400 East Timorese doctors will graduate in the next two years and hundreds more in years to come.

Cuba is also training students from the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Fiji, Tuvalu, Nauru and Tonga.

The program also involves hundreds of Cuban doctors providing free health care throughout East Timor.

Anderson recently returned from the graduation ceremony in East Timor, which was attended by more than 1000 people and broadcast live on national television.

He told Green Left Weekly: “The graduation was very moving, particularly the speeches by the students. You could hear a pin drop — people were applauding and crying.
“The graduates were speaking very humbly and clearly that they were committing themselves to support the people and they weren't going to do it with any private or commercial interest in mind. It made the whole thing very tangible and the political leaders present were paying a lot of attention to the voices of those new doctors and what they represent.”

The graduates were sworn in as doctors on the same day and will be deployed by the health department to different parts of the country, especially to rural areas, where they will gradually replace the Cuban doctors working there.

“Assuming everything goes well, the Cuban plan is to move their people into teaching and training”, he said. “One of the big challenges at the moment is to build up the [medical] faculty, which has had minimal investment and facilities. It needs a really big boost to accommodate all the students coming back [from Cuba] to finish their studies.”

Anderson said Australia was in a key position to help the project: “What the Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith did earlier this year was quite a turnaround. He met with the Cuban foreign minister in Perth, and for the first time acknowledged the work the Cubans were doing in the Pacific and in Timor. Smith said [Australia was] prepared to work with the Cubans in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

“That's an interesting possibility, as one of the problems of the [medical] faculty in Timor has been lack of investment, and that's partly to do with the domestic politics of Timor at the moment, but it’s also a resource issue. So it’s an unusual opportunity for Australia to play a constructive role with both the Cubans and Timorese.

“The Greens have said they would support Labor in that too, so the new parliament seems well placed to move ahead on that if there's political will and there's a good response from the Timorese government. One complication is that the current Timorese government is going through a crisis, so that's one of the weak links.

“The Australian government has had to recognise that Cuba is a dominant health player in the region. Australia, despite all its money, can’t really compete, so they're trying to get some kudos from what everyone in the island states knows are brilliant programs.

“It’s an extremely powerful program and even right-wing people come to accept it because it’s an incredibly good deal — no one else is doing anything like this. The training program is a really powerful one because that's what really builds the capacity of a country to address its own problems, the question of self-determination and independence.

“The ethos to train health workers as public servants, without running health as a business, strikes a chord in Timorese culture, because they've been through an independence struggle and they're focused on supporting the communities.”

[Dr Tim Anderson will present The Doctors of Tomorrow and The Pacific School of Medicine at 7.30pm, September 28 at Petersham Bowling Club, 77 Brighton St, Petersham. Event hosted by Inner West Film Fanatics. Entry is via membership available at the door: quarterly $15 ($12 concession) covers three successive months. All inclusive of the date of purchase. For more information, contact Alex 0449 184 801.]

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