Political Prisoners of the Empire  MIAMI 5     



Havana.  May 30, 2013

Algeria – 50th anniversary of Cuba’s first medical mission

Gabriel Molina Franchossi

 Che in a meeting with Dr. Gerald Simón Escalona, head of the first Cuban internationalist 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 meet them.

"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 always attentive.

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 doctor said.

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 Liberation Front.

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 work.

"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 difficult.

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.

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