Things That Matter

Here’s The Little Known History Of How Cuba Took In And Treated Thousands Of Children After The Chernobyl Disaster

Everyone is talking about “Chernobyl,” the HBO miniseries that retells the apocalyptic nuclear accident in Ukraine and its chilling, bleak aftermath. The TV show is meticulous in its reconstruction of the Soviet Era event, pointing at how the government response tried to keep panic under control. Truth is, the accident was one of the worst the world has ever seen and in the years of the Cold War. It was a catastrophic reminder that even though we might have political and ideological differences, we only have one planet. 

The event happened on April 26, 1985, when the now infamous No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near Pripyat in what is now Ukraine, superheated and caused a steam explosion. Radiation was released and the area became uninhabitable. Casualties estimates vary depending on how they are counted: some only count the immediate aftermath of the accident, while others take into consideration the effects that radiation had on life expectancy. As many as 200,000 died, according to Greenpeace. At the time, more than 600,000 civilians and military personnel were drafted to contain the nuclear fallout. 

At the time, as you know (and if you don’t its time to brush up on your contemporary world history), the world was basically divided in three: countries that aligned with the United States, countries that aligned with the Soviet Union and a few non-aligned countries. Among the Soviet Bloc countries, Cuba stood out for its response to the Chernobyl disaster. How? Well, putting to work its team of world-renowned doctors, who treated young Ukrainians affected by the radiation. 

Cuba created a massive health center for the children of Chernobyl after the deadly disaster.

Credit: b065124cef5ae6971e0fd77ff3665214_XL. Digital image. Periodico 26

About 30 kilometers from Havana lay a holiday village that was converted into an enormous facility in which the Castro regime treated children that were affected by radiation poisoning. Most of these kids came from Ukraine, but up until 1992 the program also cared for little ones from Russia and Belarus. Originally Cuba received 139 children, but the number soon increased exponentially.

The number of treated children is impressive and quite shocking.

Credit: robblekkink / Instagram

As many as 25,000 children (yes, 25,000, a whole small town) were treated between 1990 and 2011, according to Cubadebate. This is a gargantuan effort that needed considerable logistical planning.

The illnesses these kids suffered required medical specialists.

Credit: chevy88uk / Instagram

The kids were mainly treated for cancer, deformations, and muscle atrophy. Among all the things that the revolutionary regime in the island could have done better, its medical training is not one of them. Cuban oncologists and physiotherapists are among the best in the world. Other specialties that were needed: dermatology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.

But why did the Cuban government do this?

Credit: 160413_abc_archive_chernobyl_kidscuba_16x9_992. Digital image. ABC News

Besides being aligned with the former Soviet Union, Cuba follows a principle of internationalism, which is a political principle which goes beyond nationalism and advocates a greater political or economic cooperation among nations and people. Cuban doctors have not only provided aid to these Ukranian children but have also spearheaded relief efforts in countries like Venezuela and Brazil. According to Foreign Affairs, “Cuban health care workers have given aid to 158 nations, and Cuba has trained 38,000 doctors from 121 countries without charge”. Those are really impressive numbers.

Despite tremendous efforts, this was not easy or cheap for Cuba.

Credit: f4b6dca0e2911082f0eb6e1df1a0e11d_XL. Digital image. ACFS Melbourne

The collapse of the Soviet Union, for which Chernobyl holds partial blame, was also a hard blow to Cuba’s economy. All of a sudden, Cuba’s main export customer was gone. Despite this, the Tarara center continued its operations. One Cuban doctor told TeleSUR in 2017: “Although Cuba went through economically difficult times, our state continued to offer specialized treatment to minors, fulfilling a commitment of solidarity”. Dr. Julio Medina, who was the general coordinator of the program, told the official newspaper, Granma: “Many people who are unaware of our ideals still wonder what Cuba might be after. It is simple: we do not give what we have in excess; we share all that we have”. 

Unfortunately, these efforts have been mostly ignored by Western media.

Credit: 040860_360W. Digital image. The New York Times

Despite being a feel-good story amidst the avalanche of bad news that we listen, read and watch every day, this story has been swept under the heavy rug of history, perhaps due to geopolitical reasons. At the time, outlets like The New York Times published information on the matter. With the success of HBO’s show, this has been pointed out. A reader of The Guardian, one Dr. Doreen Weppler-Grogan, wrote a letter stating: 

“No other country in the world launched such a massive programme. The Cubans responded – as ‘an ethical and moral,’ not a political question, as it was put at the time, and the programme continued despite changing governments in the Ukraine.”

“Today, the aftermath persists. Just a few weeks ago, Cuba announced that it will resume the programme in a new facility for the sons and daughters of the victims, who are now showing ailments similar to those of their parents.”

Tarara was a community, not only a big hospital.

Credit: art305 / Instagram

The facilities were adapted to provide a healthy environment for the victims. Besides the medical areas, it included schools, a cooking center, a theater, parks, and recreation areas. In 2005 one of the kids, a 16-year-old girl named Alina Petrusha, told the Sunday Telegraph: “It helps. We sit under the infrared lamp and they put a lotion on our heads. Then we go to the beach.”

Everyone knows how expensive medical treatments are, but for the patients being treated in Tarara, treatment was free.

Credit: Chernobyl / HBO

As reported by The Guardian in 2009, treatment at Tarara was free. Most children were orphans or came from very poor families who could not afford care. Then, the deputy director of the program, Dr. Maria Teresa Oliva, told The Guardian: ” Ukraine now has a capitalist economy and for most of the families these kinds of treatments are very costly. Here, thanks to the revolution, we can provide everything for free”. In 2009, Natalia Kisilova, mother of Mikhail Kisilov, a 15-year-old boy who was born with one outer ear and auditory canal missing, told Noticias Financieras: ‘In my country, the treatment that my son receives would cost 80,000 euros (105,362 dollars)”. This would have been unaffordable, to say the least.

The program survived due to Ukraine-Cuba collaboration.

Credit: lh91_uk / Instagram

It is estimated that Cuba spent $300 million USD a year in the program. By 2009  Ukraine covered transportation, while room, board, schooling, and medical services were covered by the Cuban government. In 2011 Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovich visited the center alongside then Cuban President Raul Castro. A year earlier the Ukranian Foreign Minister Konstantin Grishenko said: “We will never forget what Cuba has done for us.”

You can watch this documentary to get the full story.

Credit: Chernobil en nosotros / Television Cubana

There is a 50-minute documentary that tells the story of the medical program at Tarara. Doctors talk about the effects of radiation in an approachable, if chilling, way. You can watch the documentary with English subtitles here

You can also watch this footage from AP about the program in Cuba for Chernobyl children.

Have you seen HBO’s “Chernobyl”?

READ: Here’s How Cuba’s Tumultuous History Forced A Cuban Diaspora That Changed The World

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In Cuba, Where Food Is Unreliable, Savvy Cooks Have Turned to Facebook to Share Recipes

Culture

In Cuba, Where Food Is Unreliable, Savvy Cooks Have Turned to Facebook to Share Recipes

Photo via Getty Images

COVID-19 hasn’t been easy for Cubans. Not only have Cubans been physically affected by the virus like the rest of the world, but the drop in the island’s gross domestic product has stymied local economic productivity. The island can no longer look to tourism to add to their GDP.

Because of this drop in GDP, food shortages on the island have become more severe than in recent memory. And Cuban cooks are feeling the effects.

Cubans must stand in line for hours at markets with no guarantees that the ingredients that they want will be available.

This way of living is especially hard for Cuban cooks, like 39-year-old Yuliet Colón. For Colón, cooking is both a creative expression and a stress reliever. “The kitchen is my happy place, where I am calmer and I feel better,” she recently revealed to the Associated Press.

Yuliet Colón is one of the creators of a Facebook page called Recetas del Corazón that has changed the cooking game for thousands of Cubans.

Now, thanks to Colón and other curious and generous Cuban cooks like her, Recipes from the Heart is now 12,000 members strong.

The goal of the page is to help struggling Cuban cooks cope with food shortages. Members of the page share creative recipes, tips, and food substitutions. Launched in June of 2020, the page was an instant success. Its success proves that Cubans have been desperate to find ways to adapt their cooking to the post-COVID-era.

To AP News, Yuliet Colón laments about the lack of rice, beans, cheese, fruit, and, most of all, eggs. “What I like the most is making desserts, but now it’s hard to get eggs, milk or flour,” she revealed.

The brightside is, however, that Cuban cooks are finally able to share food-related tips and tricks with each other on a much larger scale than they were before the internet became more widespread in the country.

Now that many Cubans have access to communication apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, they can now connect with one another and make the most of what they have–however little that may be.

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This Is How Cuba Is Developing Its Own COVID Vaccine When It Can Barely Get Daily Necessities To The Island

Things That Matter

This Is How Cuba Is Developing Its Own COVID Vaccine When It Can Barely Get Daily Necessities To The Island

Cuba has long been a biotech juggernaut in the Caribbean. When health crises emerge around the globe or there’s a medical disaster, Cuba is often one of the first nation’s to send medical staff and emergency workers to help. Its medical team has become part of the country’s diplomacy.

But the Coronavirus pandemic has brought economic devastation to a country already facing severe economic issues. Many on the island struggle to even find daily necessities like Tylenol or Band-Aids yet the Cuban government is just steps away from developing its own vaccine against COVID-19. How is this possible?

Cuban researches are making their own Coronavirus vaccine and seeing great results.

Currently on the island, there are five vaccine candidates in development, with two already in late-stage trials. Cuban officials say they’re developing cheap and easy-to-store serums. They are able to last at room temperature for weeks, and in long-term storage as high as 46.4 degrees, potentially making them a viable option for low-income, tropical countries that have been pushed aside by bigger, wealthier nations in the international race for coronavirus vaccines.

If they’re successful and developing and rolling out the vaccine, Cuba – a country where the average scientific researcher earns about $250 a month — could be among the first nations in the world to reach herd immunity, putting it in a position to lure vaccine tourists and to export surpluses of what officials claim could reach 100 million doses by year’s end.

If they pull this off, it would be a big win for the communist government.

Achieving success would be an against-the-odds feat of medical science and a public relations win for the isolated country of 11 million people. Cuba was just added back to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in the final days of the Trump administration.

It could also make Cuba the pharmacist for nations lumped by Washington into the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Countries like Iran and Venezuela have already inked vaccine deals with Havana. Iran has even agreed to host a Phase 3 trial of one of Cuba’s most promising candidates — Soberana 2 — as part of a technology transfer agreement that could see millions of doses manufactured in Iran.

“We have great confidence in Cuban medical science and biotechnology,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told The Washington Post this week. “It will not only be fundamental for Venezuela, but for the Americas. It will be the true solution for our people.”

So how is Cuba managing to pull this off despite all the challenges they face?

Cuba is an authoritarian, one-party state with strict controls on everything from free speech and political activism to social media and LGBTQ rights. But the island has always invested heavily in education and healthcare, which has led to an unusually sophisticated biotechnology industry for a small developing country, with at least 31 research companies and 62 factories with over 20,000 workers.

Should Cuba’s vaccines succeed, its researchers will have overcome even more hurdles than their peers in Western labs — including shortages of equipment, spare parts and other supplies, due in part to U.S. sanctions

A successful vaccine could also become a vital new source of revenue for Cuba, which has been suffering a brutal economic crisis that has citizens waiting hours in line to buy scarce food, soap and toothpaste. The economy worsened under Trump-era sanctions that tightened the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of Cuba by curbing remittances, scaling back U.S. flights, ending cruise ship passenger traffic and further complicating Cuba’s access to the global financial system. President Biden has called for a possible return to Obama-era policies, but he has made no such moves yet.

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