Cholera in Cuba
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Cuba: Victories, Cholera and Our Neighbors

Cuba: Victories, Cholera and Our Neighbors

October 2, 2012

By Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba's leaders like decisive and overwhelming victories,

which is what they have proclaimed to the world for five decades. While

it's true that they've never been able to overcome economic

inefficiencies, they did achieve crushing military victories several

times, from the Bay of Pigs to Cuito Cuanavale (in Angola).

Accustomed as they are to taking part in such triumphs, in late August

the Ministry of Public Health proclaimed that they had won their war

against cholera after suffering a final toll of 417 people infected and

three dead.

This was a big mistake, because vibrio cholerae isn't so easily overcome

– even less so when relying on quickly organized campaigns. Cholera is a

disease that has a low mortality rate because the cure is relatively

simple, nevertheless it's exceedingly difficult to eradicate.

To do so requires a lot of time and care, much more than what the Cuban

health authorities could provide. Therefore cholera has returned to the

island, or — better said — it has reappeared, having never really left.

A first conclusion about how the cholera epidemic broke out in Cuba

would be the deplorable sanitary conditions in the region, not because

the infection has occurred, which can sometimes happen for a host of

reasons, and regardless of one's class or status.

In the Dominican Republic, for example, a wedding party of Venezuelan

millionaires was infected during the festivities in a country estate,

where they dined on infected ceviche. Though no one died, the toilets of

Caracas were under a tremendous siege for several days.

Nor can a conclusion be made because three patients died in Cuba, which

is a very low number and indicates the promptness of the island's health

care services.

But the fact that four hundred people became infected in such a short

time does demonstrate the magnitude that should induce the government to

focus its allocations on the provision of an improved water supply and

better sanitation conditions in these regions, which remain among the

poorest in the country.

The other issue is the origin of the ailment. There had been no cholera

in the Caribbean for over a century.

It reappeared in Haiti a couple of years ago not because the poverty of

the Haitians created it, but because UN troops — particularly a Nepalese

contingent — sowed it in the Artibonite River from their poorly

constructed latrines. Since then it has killed more than 7,000 people

and sickened nearly 600,000.

From there it's likely that it was carried in the intestines of a Cuban

internationalist aid worker or in a fish that made its way to the town

of Manzanillo. So far this hasn't been explained, so I suspect that it

was an internationalist aid worker.

I haven't been following or keeping up with the epidemic, I'm not a

doctor. But I think this issue forces us to think more seriously about

Cuba's relations with Haiti, a topic I've addressed several times before.

The history of eastern Cuban has always been linked to Haiti. In 1900

there began arriving in our country hundreds of thousands of Haitian

workers, who's labor made possible the great harvests of the 1920s. Many

of them were temporary and were repatriated when the harvest ended, but

others remained in the country.

In 1931, the census counted almost 80,000 of them. In 1953 — when the

flow was for the most part had stopped, many had assumed Cuban

citizenship — they numbered 28,000. The descendants of these people, who

maintain a long-term cultural ingredient, are currently estimated at

about 80,000.

Haitian cultural vitality — one of the greatest riches of this country —

can be seen in the eastern region, where people of that origin still

populate many of the old still existing sugarcane towns and constitute

the leading parts of the unforgettable programs of the Caribbean

festivals in Santiago de Cuba.

I'm sure that the current demographic situation in Cuba could induce the

reactivation of migratory flows. At the same time that Haiti continues

to lose population from emigration, all of eastern Cuba (especially its

southern side) is experiencing depopulation due to low growth rates and

migration from eastern Cuba to Havana (while Havanans are migrating to

south Florida).

Across the island the population is aging and stagnant or in a process

of absolute reduction.

The island of Cuba needs a workforce, especially if it continues the

current process of economic liberalization and privatization of

agricultural land. Many Haitians could find a stimulus to emigrate to

Cuba, where currently many thousands of Haitians already live,

particularly in the southeastern region; there, their customs and

religious beliefs wouldn't be strange in the least.

This wouldn't make us unique, because Haitians have spread throughout

the Caribbean, forming strong communities in the Dominican Republic, the

Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos, Guadeloupe, Cayenne, and of course in

Miami – where they live in segregated neighborhoods (residential

segregation is a fact of that city, particularly in Little Haiti). In

all these places they are key pieces of the local economies.

This is why what cholera indicates is more than an epidemic. It's a

relationship that will grow and will require special handling. It will

not be solved in a quick and crushing victory, like the one that

supposedly befell vibrio cholerae earlier this year but that still

haunts us from the quagmire of Manzanillo.


(*) Originally published by

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