The Flip Side of Cuba’s Missions Abroad

January 27, 2013 | Print Print |

Rosa Martinez

Cuban doctor in Haiti in the anti-cholera campaign. Photo: cubadebate.cu

Cuban doctor in Haiti in the anti-cholera campaign. Photo: cubadebate.cu

HAVANA TIMES — Leaving Cuba, by whatever means, has become the most cherished dream of many Cubans, just as many Americans dream of becoming millionaires.

Although our new immigration regulations seem to open a path to this utopia, international aid missions remain the easiest way to realize this.

International assistance provided by our professionals in various fields, especially in health care and education, has allowed us to become recognized worldwide as one of the governments that provides the most aid.

Thanks to our support, hundreds of thousands of poor people in the region have undergone surgery for free, both inside and outside Cuba. Likewise, incalculable numbers of Haitians were spared the consequences of the terrible earthquake and the no less horrifying outbreak of cholera that struck that unfortunate land.

In more than a dozen nations, our teachers have taught millions of people to read and write through the Cuban “Yo si Puedo” (Yes I can) method.

Our assistance personnel have provided not only professional aid but also spiritual support after embracing those cultures, often previously unknown to them, and becoming a part of them.

Among the benefits for Cuba have been certain bilateral agreements, especially oil in the case of Venezuela, which is no secret.

These contacts have also improved the standard of living of the families of Cuban internationalists, who’ve been able to bring home latest-generation household appliances, some have been able to purchase modern or old cars in good condition and of course hard currency, which is paid to each of them at the end of their mission. With these funds, more than a few of them have been able to buy homes or repair and modernize the ones they already own.

They’re able to buy or bring back computers for their children, which otherwise they could never dream of having here in Cuba, or a simple bike, which the low wages here can’t buy. These material things aren’t essential, but are still very important in the life of any human being.

International assistance provided by our professionals in various fields, especially in health care and education, has allowed us to become recognized worldwide as one of the governments that provides the most aid.

But the internationalist missions have a flip side that many forget when they leave Cuba.

On this side, what’s seldom spoken of is the separation of the family, especially parents from children. This is worse in the case of the doctors, who spent five or more years on missions in Africa and Venezuela.

How many children, barely a month after their births, are torn from their mother’s breast and left in the care of a grandmother, an aunt or some other relative?

How many are completely transformed during the difficult years of adolescence owing to the absence of their parents and not having anyone who understands them?

How many began using alcohol or stealing because they’re left alone when they’re still at the age where they need support and guidance?

This is why I don’t understand why Mirelis and Luis want to leave on another mission. They went on one five years ago and left their two children with the grandparents.

Upon their return, they brought back a bunch of things (that they still haven’t used), bought a house in the center of town, and — to top it off — they bought a car for the family.

As important as our partnerships with other countries are, and despite how much it does to improve our family budgets here, I can’t stop thinking about those who are left behind to suffer the separation from their loved ones.

It seems they still don’t have enough “stuff,” or maybe the commitment they feel for other peoples is greater than the commitment they have for their own children.

When the children were young, their grandparents took care of them the best they could. I was a witness to the many times the older couple had to deal with everything from accidents at home, diarrheal disease and shortness of breath (both of the kids have asthma).

Now the two children are nearly teenagers. One of them is twelve and the youngest is nine. But I wonder if it’s easier to deal with them now that they’re older and more independent or whether this makes the task more difficult.

As important as our partnerships with other countries are, and despite how much it does to improve our family budgets here, I can’t stop thinking about those who are left behind to suffer the separation from their loved ones.

I keep thinking about the setbacks and frustrations. The joys and triumphs that are only shared through an occasional email, a text message or a phone call, which are never as warm as a hug from mama or a scolding from daddy.

Hopefully, in time my neighbors will realize that their children need more from them. They require advice, conversation, affection, education and kisses more than modern gadgets or some other fad that’s impossible to acquire with our wages in Cuba.


What's your opinion?

  • Moses Patterson

    I have personal knowledge of one case where the married internationalist who spent two years in Venezuela succumbed to the separation and loneliness and ended up falling in love with a Venezuelan woman. His affair resulted in divorce from his Cuban wife and the disruption of his relationship with his young daughter from that marriage. In another case, the spouse who remained in Cuba was unfaithful and when the returning internationalist discovered what had taken place in his absense, he murdered his wife. I am told that infidelity is a big problem for relationships separated for the cause of foreign missions. Another sad cost of an otherwise noble cause.

  • MamaJ

    I’m British and I have worked abroad twice, for one year each time, but when I had my son, I wouldn’t have worked abroad without him. May I ask why Cubans working abroad do not take the children with them? In some countries in Africa, the husbands leave their families, their villages to work in mines, for example, to make a living. I visited a big village where there were 2 men – one the chief or head man. It’s not peculiar to Cuba.

    • Grady R. Daugherty

      I think you’re quite correct, MamaJ. Children need their parents, and parents need their children.

      Why can’t internationalist mission workers take their families? In the end it’s probably a question of it costing more to send family members along; but still, the benefits–it seems to me–would outweigh the extra costs.

      Also, why not limit missions to one or two years?

    • Moses Patterson

      Until the implementation of these most recent immigration reforms, Cubans were largely prohibited from travelling abroad with children, especially those sent on medical missions. The Castro regime believed that a parent sent abroad whose children were left in Cuba was more likely to return to Cuba. Likewise, those Cubans permitted to travel as tourists on letters of invitation or using work permits were also typically not permitted to bring their children. Cubans permanently immigrating to other countries, of course, were permitted to take children. It remains to be seen how this will change given the new reforms.

  • Travelling Bag

    I’ve been given
    the impression that a current problem is the acceptance of capitalist greed. In
    the past, acquiring things for the sake of acquiring was looked down on socially
    (regardless of what the laws said.) Years ago, Cubans who I knew or met wouldn’t
    even think of hoarding anything because they felt it was just wrong. I’d visit
    someone and take a couple bottles of liquor, as soon as the gift was given a
    glass was poured for everyone and then the kids were sent out to get the
    neighbours and let everyone know that for as long as it lasted, if you turn up
    at the door you’ll leave with a shot of hooch. The last couple of years I’ve
    been seeing more of a tendency to stash a bottle away and open one… Don’t
    invite anyone. If they just happen to turn up, sure, give them something but the
    openness, sharing and caring is slowly fading. I’ve noticed too that a lot of
    people used to acquire a TV and they’d put it on their porch so that anyone
    passing by could stop and watch. Lately, TVs are more & more being buried
    in the house and when I’ve asked about that, I was told that if the TV is where
    everyone can watch it, you aren’t special for having a TV. The guy down the
    street doesn’t have to save money for a TV if he can just watch yours, he can
    spend his money on booze that he secretly drinks (without sharing) and gets his
    entertainment on your dime.

    I’m not saying
    that the majority of people are like this (in fact, I know they’re not), but it
    is a growing trend and good or bad, right or wrong that is the direction things
    are going to go in more & more.