Thursday, November 3, 2011

Interview: A Cuban-trained Timorese doctor

In late October, the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (Sydney) toured Dr. Metha Armindo Monteiro, an East Timorese medical doctor trained in Cuba who is also an activist in the Timor Leste-Cuba Friendship Association, the ACFS's sister organisation in East Timor. 

Cuban doctors and their large-scale medical training program came to East Timor in 2004, followed by Kiribati, Nauru, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands over 2006-2008. By late 2009 more than a thousand young students from East Timor and Pacific island nations were studying medicine with Cuban professionals, most of them in Cuba. 

This “South-South” collaboration is transforming the health systems of these developing countries. In October, Papua New Guinea sent government officials to Cuba to sign a medical collaboration accord. Cuba suffers US trade sanctions and has a per capita GDP around one eighth that of Australia. 

Yet socialist-oriented Cuba’s solidarity aid is a stark contrast to Australia’s oil grab in the Timor Sea and the miserly scale of its regional scholarship programs. Concern over Cuba’s growing prestige in Australian imperialism’s “backyard” may be one reason why the Australian government has expressed a desire to collaborate with Cuba in the Pacific.

Interview and translation from Spanish by Marce Cameron.

What is the current state of health care in East Timor, and what has been the impact of Cuba’s medical collaboration in recent years? 

To introduce myself, my name is Dr. Merita Antónia Armindo Monteiro, but you can call me Metha. I’m a new doctor in my country because I only graduated two months ago. We’re waiting to sign contracts to begin working for the East Timorese government. Regarding the health system in East Timor, it’s being built up on the basis of primary and secondary health care. East Timor has the Guido Valadares National Hospital in the capital, Dili, and five regional hospitals in Oecussi, Suai, Maliana, Maubissi and Baucau. 

We also have various health clinics located in every corner of the country. In the regional hospitals we offer both major and minor health services including some specialist services such as gynaecology, and we carry out some operations. For very complicated cases we may need to refer or transfer the patient to the national hospital in Dili so they can receive more specialised attention; this is also where they have the most advanced medical equipment. 

In terms of the impact of the Cuban medical presence in East Timor, I see it as very positive. When I left East Timor to begin my medical studies in Cuba in 2004, there were still only a small number of Cuban doctors in East Timor, but when I returned there were many more. They are distributed all over the country in the hospitals and in almost every local health clinic, attending to people who live very far from the nearest hospital. In some cases patients find it a bit difficult to get to a hospital, so the Cuban doctors visit them in their homes. This is very good. 

People often comment that they’re very satisfied with the medical attention they receive from the Cuban doctors. Many people tell me that the Cubans do an excellent job. I’m not saying this because I studied medicine in Cuba, but because of my own experience and because of what some East Timorese families tell me about the Cuban doctors.

Are there any conflicts between the Cuban and the East Timorese doctors?

There are no big conflicts but yes, sometimes the Cuban doctors have different ideas to those of the local doctors or doctors from other countries, but everything is resolved professionally because we’re health workers who are part of a professional medical team. In my experience, everything has been resolved professionally and with good outcomes.

What motivated you to join the medical training programme in Cuba? What’s the story behind this journey? 

Well, I’d always wanted to study medicine, but since my family is poor they couldn’t afford to pay for me to study medicine in another country, such as Indonesia for example. So I decided to participate in the Cuban scholarship program. Before that I had wanted to study nursing, but when I graduated from senior high school the nursing college was closed at that time so I couldn’t study nursing. I then enrolled in the university [in Dili] and had been studying public health for two years when I was granted the scholarship to study medicine in Cuba. So I left public health to participate in this programme. Thanks to God I managed to get the scholarship, then I left my family behind to study medicine in Cuba for six years.

Where in Cuba did you study?

I spent the whole of my time in Cuba in Ciego de Avila province in the centre of the country, initially in a place called Morón where I did nine months of preparatory studies before doing first and second year medicine in [the provincial capital] Ciego de Avila. I then returned to Morón to study my third, fourth and fifth years of medicine. For my final year I returned to East Timor and studied at the Guido Valadares National Hospital in Dili.

Did you live with a Cuban family in Cuba?

Not exactly with a Cuban family, because we had a scholarship and we stayed in a college with other compañeros. A lot of people lived there, many students from Africa, South America, the Caribbean, Asia; people who spoke English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, many languages. We all lived together very harmoniously like one big family, and when, thanks to God, we all graduated from our final year of studies and everyone went back to their own countries, we continued to stay in touch through Facebook. We ask each other if we’re OK, if we’ve got married, if we’re working yet. We keep in touch.

Can you share with us some of your reflections on the experience of living in and studying in Cuba?

Yes, the Cubans taught me many things. They taught me to be independent; they taught me to love people more than simply as human beings; they taught me to embody this great love and to express it in the treatment of my patients; they taught me how to live among the people; and they taught me how to make the most of the scarce resources available to them. Cuba is a country with different ideas. It is blockaded by the US but it keeps going, and it has developed very good health and education systems which I greatly admire. Our country doesn’t have to change its ideas, but I do hope that one day with the development of its health and education systems, East Timor’s can be like Cuba’s.

What is the purpose of your visit to Australia?

I’m here in Sydney for two weeks at the invitation of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (Sydney), to exchange ideas regarding the work of the two organisations, the ACFS and the Timor Leste-Cuba Friendship Association. In the first place to support to Cuba, since both groups have the same objective. For example, to call for the release of the Cuban Five political prisoners in the US and campaigning to end the US blockade of Cuba. So I’ve spent a lot of my time here talking to the members of the ACFS, and I can see there’s a lot of interest in supporting Cuba and in establishing relations with East Timor. We’ve been discussing various ideas to act on, about how to strengthen these links between Australia and Cuba, East Timor and Cuba and Australia and East Timor.

How much awareness is there about Cuba in East Timor?

Well, as you know East Timor is not as developed as a country like Australia, so I think the level of awareness is somewhat less than in Australia and other countries. I’d say that some intellectuals know about Cuba, but the majority of the population know little about it other than the Cuban medical mission. They know that Cuban doctors serve them, but many are unaware of the problems [faced by Cuba]. However, there are some groups such as the Timor Leste-Cuba Friendship Association, to which I belong, that are willing to support Cuba and know a lot about Cuba. This is why we’ve organised some actions, displayed photos and screened documentaries against the US blockade and in support of the Cuban Five. So little by little, more people are becoming aware of these issues and are starting to get involved.

Can you share with us something of your experience as a medical student since returning to East Timor?

I was in Cuba for six years without ever returning to East Timor for holidays. When I came back I saw a big change due to the presence of the Cuban doctors. Before, there were many members of my family who never went to hospital, but now when they have a medical problem they visit the hospital. They’re concerned about their health in a way that they weren’t before, when some thought it wasn’t important; they’d stay at home until their condition became very critical and only then would they go to hospital. Awareness of the importance of health is growing, which is very good. This is what struck me when I came back from Cuba.

Thank you very much. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’d just like to say that East Timor is a new country, very new in comparison to others, I think one of the newest in the world. But it’s growing very quickly in every respect. East Timor is developing rapidly, economically and in terms of other things such as health, thanks to all of the Cuban medical workers and also doctors from other countries, as well as our local doctors who are making a great effort in this field. I hope that the Cuban doctors, the other international doctors and the East Timorese medical personnel can all work together as a strong team to establish this improved health system in East Timor.

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