September 13, 2005

Slaves in white coats

By Carlos Alberto Montaner, Posted on Tue, Sep. 13, 2005 in The Miami Herald.

Fidel Castro offered the United States a small army of 1,586 doctors to help relieve the catastrophe created by Hurricane Katrina. The State Department courteously declined the aid and explained the reason: The United States does not need medical help; it has all the doctors and hospitals it requires.

The problems, all of them transitory, are of a different kind and related to logistics and urgency, not shortage. It's not that the United States has no drinking water, food rations or oil. It's that, suddenly, it has to feed and evacuate hundreds of thousands of displaced people from cities that are flooded and in ruins.

Castro, however, did not offer his medical contingent so that the United States might accept it. It was a gesture. He is a man of gestures. For almost half a century, he has been playing with appearances. He appears to be a statesman who is loved by a prosperous and happy people whose principal necessities have been met.

That's false, and he knows it, but he doesn't care. He devotes all his effort to spread that image and to conceal the truth of a miserable and desperate country. Within his topsy-turvy psychology, his offer is a way to humiliate the United States and inflict upon it a political defeat.

By his reasoning, if Washington accepts the doctors, it proves the invincible superiority of Castro's communist system, always brotherly and alert. If it does not accept them, it demonstrates the callous indifference of capitalism to the pain of the poor people of Louisiana, almost all of them black.

In any case, the truly humiliated and offended people are the Cuban doctors, those 65,000 fine professionals -- generally devoted and selfless -- who usually work and live under miserable conditions in Cuba. They are the comandante's favorite slaves: He rents them out, sells them, gives them away, lends them, exchanges them for oil or uses them as an alibi to justify his dictatorship.

It is through them, and the dentists, that Castro expresses his altruistic outbursts. His kind, revolutionary internationalism is based on the sacrifice of the Cuban medics. Sometimes he uses them to foment political dependence, as in his wealthy Venezuelan colony; others, to promote propaganda or exert diplomatic pressure on the country that receives his poisoned present.

They are his slaves and must obey him meekly. They cannot emigrate from Cuba, but if Castro, with a snap of his fingers, tells them to go abroad they must do so at once and leave their families as hostages. Once overseas -- in Algeria or Guatemala, Iran or Honduras -- they must never tell what they know about the Cuban reality. They mustn't defect, because if they do they will never again see their loved ones.

'A frustrated doctor'

Castro's relations with doctors are quite peculiar. His favorite son (and he has dozens of sons) is a good-natured and discreet orthopedist. Castro is surrounded by doctors, perhaps because he's a notorious hypochondriac, whereas he detests any contact with lawyers, which is what he studied to be.

His private physician, Eugenio Zelman, usually complains, half in jest, half in earnest, that, ''Fidel is a frustrated doctor who wants to know more medicine than I.'' And that's how it is: Doctors at Brothers Almeijeira Hospital feared the Maximum Leader's visits as if they were the plague, along with his scatterbrained opinions as to what and how much should be prescribed.

Some years ago, the National Assembly gave Castro a luxury yacht as a birthday present. Recently, it presented him with a small mobile hospital, staffed with physicians and surgeons who accompany him everywhere. When he was younger, he wanted to enjoy life; now, he's happy just to prolong it.

In the building where his office is located, the situation is the same: He has, permanently and at his exclusive disposal, a complete center for any kind of medical emergency. A mere attack of the hiccups is enough to set off every alarm. No head of government on the planet takes so many precautions. None commands an army of 65,000 sad-eyed slaves in white coats.

©2005 Firmas Press


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