Algeria – 50th
anniversary of Cuba’s first medical mission
Che in a meeting
with Dr. Gerald
Simón Escalona, head of the first
Cuban internationalist medical mission.
ALGERIA’S struggle for independence
made such an impression on Fidel that within a few
hours of meeting President Ben Bella, and discussing
the horrendous health conditions in the country, he
made a commitment to help. That same evening, Fidel
proposed to a meeting of the reduced number of Cuban
doctors on the island that 50 volunteers be sent to
the North African country.
It was October 17, 1962, five days
before the outbreak of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Leaving the Algerian President at his lodging, Fidel
went to the meeting convened to inaugurate the
Victoria de Girón Institute of Basic Sciences and
Preclinical Studies, and outlined the challenges
facing public health in Cuba.
The central problem was the exodus
of more than 3,000 doctors from the country. It was
for this reason that the new Institute was
established, to train a large number of young
doctors with an emphasis on humanist principles and
devotion to serving the people.
Seven months later, on May 23, 1963,
the first Cuban medical mission to an underdeveloped
country departed for Algiers. Fifty years ago, 56
persons took responsibility for the internationalist
project and opened the way for Cuba’s fruitful
collaboration throughout the Third World.
Dr. Gerald Simón Escalona recalled,
"Despite the equally desperate reality in Cuba, that
night our leader proposed helping Algeria, given the
great number of ailments festering there over 130
years of colonial exploitation. With a population of
four million more than Cuba in need, the majority of
doctors there, who were French, left when
independence was gained after a bitter struggle."
The following day, a meeting was
held in the Ministry of Health, and Simón told
Minister Jose R. Machado Ventura that he wanted to
participate in the mission.
"Among other motivations, were my
Arab roots. My paternal grandparents were Lebanese.
Also because I had been following on television the
development of the Algerian people’s struggle
against French colonialism and was very impressed.
It was a David against Goliath struggle, similar to
the one the Cuban people had just undertaken."
They began to review the names of
those who had volunteered. Simón would participate
as the director of mutual society clinics already
incorporated into the national system. A few days
later, Machado approved the participants and
designated him head of the mission. Recruitment
ended quickly, since the number of volunteers soon
exceeded capacity. There were already more than 50.
"We didn’t have much information
about mortality, about which diseases were
predominate or what types of specialists were most
needed. So we focused on determining the reality and
discovered that issues such as ophthalmologic
problems, those related to obstetrics, dentistry,
surgery and others, were important."
Once this information had been
gathered, the Minister himself, Machado Ventura led
the mission and the group boarded a Cubana de
Aviación flight piloted by Captains Luis Alvarez
Tabíoy and César Alarcón. After a 19-hour flight,
they landed in Algiers and were met by
representatives from the ministries of Public Health,
Foreign Affairs, Defense and Youth. The delegation
was composed of 28 doctors, three dentists, 15
nurses and 8 technicians who were housed in several
hotels around the capital.
Machado and Simón were accommodated
in a Moorish style building that had been the French
government’s headquarters and was renamed the People’s
Palace. The group ate dinner there and the embassy
organized a reception attended by several ministers.
Ben Bella received Machado and Simón and, in the
course of the meeting, asked about the doctors. Upon
hearing where they were staying, he decided to go
"The President was very affectionate
with everyone, giving the impression that he was
very happy and considered the mission very important,
as he did when I had the honor of meeting him five
more times over the next several months, to report
on the mission's work," Simón said. Vice President
Houari Boumedien received Simón as well and was
The doctor continued, "The scars
colonialism left on Algeria were impressive. I was
required to travel through the country from one end
to the other in the seven months I was there.
Thousands of kilometers on every trip, with only the
Algerian chauffeur Ben Bella sent me. My principal
task was staying informed of all the work and
difficulties. From Tebessa on the eastern border
with Tunisia, to Sidi Bel Abbes, on the western
border with Morocco. Some Cuban medical personnel
were placed in city hospitals, others in
dispensaries, clinics and even houses, all separated
by great distances, in places where more poverty
could be seen, in an Algeria where bombs exploded by
the extremist French Secret Army Organization were
still frequent. Nevertheless, the national pride of
Algerians was impressive. This fervor strengthened
our own identity as Cubans."
The Cuban delegation was situated in
five groups, this first year: Military Care
(Constantine and Medea) and four
other locales: Tebessa, Setif, Constantine and Sidi
Bel Abbes. The personnel in Tebessa later moved to
Bizkra, and that in Military Care to Blida.
"Bizkra, close to Constantine and
Sidi Bel Abbes, are right by the desert. We visited
with Machado, who stayed there a little more than a
week. I remember they received us with much
affection, offering us camel milk and dates. The
women chanting very much impressed Cubans. This was
a high-pitched sound made by rapid movement of the
tongue, characteristic of Algerian women to express
joy when leaders arrived," Simón recalled.
One of the first contacts made was
with current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, then
Minister of Youth and Sports, who invited Gerald
Simón to accompany him on a tour of the provinces
which leaders periodically conducted to see first-hand
the most pressing problems of the population,
especially in regions distant from the capital.
Throughout the country, they were
received with joy and affection by local authorities
and the people. "When we were identified, they
greeted us with the words 'Cuba' and 'Fidel'...
Algiers is beautiful; in particular we loved the
Casbah. We were told it was dangerous for foreigners,
but our compañeros went in groups", the
In reality, it was dangerous for the
French during the war and some time later, as a
result of the cruel tortures, disparagingly called 'rat
hunts,' carried out by General Jacques E. Massu, to
extract confessions from members of the National
I was able to confirm who couldn't
enter the Casbah, when a photographer of ours
accidentally bumped a boy there with his camera. The
residents wanted to lynch him, but they relaxed and
smiled when I explained that he was Cuban. Everyone
was attracted by the indomitable Casbah.
Simón's contacts and travels allowed
him to more quickly understand Algerians. "I learned
many words, although I already knew a few my
grandmother had taught me. I attempted to have
Cubans and Algerians together in meetings. There was
no problem - that I was aware of - that was not
resolved satisfactorily. The Cuban mission
strengthened the affection shared by the Algerian
and Cuban people, given its professional conduct and
ethics, and, of course, the quality and scope of its
"It's enough to say that the
surgeons placed in the civilian sector performed an
average of 200 operations a month," Dr. Washington
Rosell related, pointing out that the benefit was
mutual, since Cubans learned to treat unfamiliar
illnesses and conditions.
No funds were distributed to mission
members during practically the entire seven months
Gerald Simón was in Algeria, making some things
He said, "Machado had left me about
a thousand dollars, so I was able to deal with some
of the delegation's difficulties and needs. Then Che
visited Algeria in mid-1963 and I spoke to him about
the problem. With his sharp sense of humor, Che
asked Simón who he thought he was, "A colonialist?"
Simón was somewhat disconcerted, as
many were when they became close to Che and he spoke
with them, half joking, half seriously, but
responded, "It's a question of decision-making. I
still don't even know who is paying."
Che smiled and said that Cuba would
cover the costs and that he would see about it as
soon as he arrived in Havana. He invited Simón to
the protocol house where he was staying which Simón
considered a great honor.
Shortly thereafter, when Simón was
about to return to Cuba, he received Deputy Minister
Dr. Mario Escalona, who came to take his place. He
brought enough cash to pay each member of the
mission for the seven months of services provided
and purchase a Peugeot 404 for their work. (Escalona
was later replaced by Dr. Pablo Ressik as head of
Cuba's first medical mission.)
During Che’s visit, Angel Boan,
Prensa Latina correspondent in Algeria, was
killed in a car accident, accompanying the mission
leaders on a trip to the southern region of the
country. Che was distressed and asked Dr. Manuel
Cedeño to come from Setif, where he was working, to
embalm Boan's body and transport it back to Cuba.
Che was so concerned about
information from Algeria that, upon his return,
right on the Rancho Boyeros airport tarmac, in the
company of Comandante
Manuel Piñeyro, he proposed to the
author of these lines that I assume Boan’s work as
correspondent. Che, along with Fidel and Jorge
Masetti, was a founder of Prensa Latina and
never lost interest in the agency’s efforts.