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June 2002 • Vol 2, No. 6 •

Response to President Carter’s Speech

By Fidel Castro

Distinguished former president of the United States, James Carter, Mrs. Carter and other members of his delegation;

Greetings, also, to the other guests, and to the dear students of the Latin American Medical School:

I was not sure if I should speak or not. Among other things, I did not want to endanger all of you here with a speech that might go on a bit longer than it should. But there was a complete hush and so I felt obliged, really I did, to come up to this podium for a few minutes.

I saw a program that read, “Finally, the keynote speech is introduced.” That is what they usually say in these public ceremonies, the open forums and so on. But I would say that in any case, if I were to say something, it would be the closing remarks, since the keynote speech was given by President Carter. Just to explain this thing about a former president and president, it is a matter of courtesy. In the United States, in friendly and informal settings, anyone who has been a president, even if he no longer is, continues to be called president, and that is the friendly manner in which we are speaking to him today.

I was thinking to myself, what is it really that we are doing here? Is this a medical school, or is it something else? One thinks in terms of numbers, percentages and so on. I was also calculating, for example, how many doctors we had at the time of the triumph of the Revolution, and it turns out that the number of students at this school today is greater than the number of doctors in Cuba at that time. And two or three year’s later only half of those doctors stayed in our country. Only 40 percent of our professors of medicine stayed too.

The results that I could present here today, and I do not say show because we do not show anything off, we present things that have been achieved with a tremendous effort, a 43 years effort. 

With the doctors who stayed in our country, we were able to create what we have today, and what we have today is a little over 22 doctors for every doctor they left us. And the number of students enrolled in medical studies in our universities today is two and a half times the number of doctors who stayed in our country.

Yes, we faced a situation that posed a tremendous challenge. We either remained without doctors, or we would make the effort required to have all the doctors we needed.

Among our greatest hopes, when we thought about the future, when we dreamed of the future, was the hope that our country would have a good medical system.

I will never forget that when I was a grammar school student in grade five or six, and I went home to the farming estate where I lived, I would sometimes find that a third of the children had died. Nobody heard anything about it; it was not published in the newspapers. And what did they die of? Acidosis. And to this you would have to add, of course, all those who regularly died of tetanus, or any of the many other diseases that regularly afflicted the people in the countryside here.

We also dreamed of schools, because we observed the world around us, and realized that almost all of the young people and adults were illiterate. I remember that some of the few who could read and write made a living by writing letters for others who wanted to write to a girlfriend or a girl they wanted to court. But they did not dictate these letters, they had to ask from the letter writers to produce the content of the letter as well. They would ask them to say in the letter what they thought they would have to say to win over the girl, because in those days, it was the boys who courted the girls, there was not as much equality as today.

Those were two pillars we fought for, but they were not the two fundamental pillars. The fundamental pillar was something else: justice, equality of opportunities, true brotherhood among human beings. And what is a society without justice? What is a society of illiterates? What is a society where a small few have everything, and the rest have nothing? What freedom can be born of inequality and ignorance? What democracy? What human rights?

There are very profound things that our people hold dear. We are firmly convinced that there are many words and many concepts that must be redefined, if we truly want to advance towards a worthy future. The past cannot be the future, and to conceive of a future society genuinely requires rethinking many concepts that are prehistoric.

We all know, or many of us know, that the word democracy first originated in Greece. When we were young we were told, “There was a model of democracy, the citizens ran the government gathered in a public square,” which must have been quite small. In those days, Athens, for example, had about 20,000 free citizens—there must have been a bit fewer, because if they met in a square, and there were not even microphones back then, they all had to fit in what was actually a small park. Without these microphones, I could not be heard at the back of this group of people gathered here. And in addition to the 15,000 or 20,000 free citizens there were 50,000 or 60,000 people who had no rights whatsoever and around 80,000 human beings who were slaves.

When we look around the world today and we see that there are billions of human beings who live in conditions of inconceivable poverty, billions and billions of human beings who live in that Third World, we might ask ourselves what kind of world we are living in. When we see that there are countries where 90 percent of the people are illiterate and have no schools, and that their numbers grow larger every day; when we hear reports of the number of children who could be saved yet who die before the age of one, and we compare the countries where these deaths account for 5, 6, 7 or 8 children out of every 1000 born alive, while that figure is over 150 in other countries, we ask ourselves what kind of world we are living in.

March 21, 2002
Fidel Castro representing Cuba at the International Conference on Financing for Development held at Monterrey, Mexico, under United Nations auspices. The U.S. threatened to boycott the meeting unless Castro left Mexico before President Bush arrived!

We often ask ourselves, in what century, in what millennium shall we be able to say that all human beings born into this world are truly born into it with an equality of opportunities in life?

We have made tremendous efforts to ensure that at least on this island, there can be an equality of opportunities for all human beings, and we still have not completely achieved this goal. You can imagine how difficult it is, and how much more difficult still when you are starting out from a situation of poverty, which is how our own country had to start out, and how over 140 countries are starting out today, to a greater or lesser extent. And if there is any satisfaction, as a reward for the efforts of so many compatriots who struggled, and many who fell in the battle or devoted all of their lives’ energies to an ideal of justice, to a noble dream, it is the fact that our country is moving ever closer to a society where all human beings have an equality of opportunities, but not just in theory, because only in theory can we speak about equality in the world today.

Only in theory, when you know, for example, that a country like Mozambique has a per capita gross domestic product of 80 dollars a year, while others have an annual GDP of 45,000 dollars. And I am not referring only to the difference between nations, but rather to the differences between individuals within the same nation, and our Latin American countries are Olympic champions in this regard.

We Latin Americans come from the region with the widest gap between the rich and the poor. We know that in many of them, the richest 10 percent of the population possesses 50 percent of the wealth and goods produced in these nations, while the poorest 10 percent have access to only 4 percent or 5 percent, or sometimes even less, of the gross domestic product.

When you walk through the streets you see them full of children cleaning windshields, shining shoes or working for a pittance in order to help support their families. You see children who do not go to school, because there are no schools, or children who do not even make it past fifth grade, because if I remember correctly, only 52 percent reach fifth grade, much less sixth grade or ninth grade. And we could ask ourselves why, and what degree of justice there is, what the future holds for some and what it holds for others.

And that is why, while many recognize the tremendous advances that our country has made in health care, education and sports, as if these were the only objectives, or the final objectives of our struggles or our lives, we would have to add: We are striving for something much more noble, we are striving for justice for all.

How can there be justice when people do not know how to read and write? How can there be freedom without justice or equality? How can there be a democracy like the democracy in Athens we mentioned earlier? How can we speak of human rights, and what kind of world are we living in, when the very country that in this era and in the face of unimaginable difficulties is moving closer, and at an ever faster rate, to this level, this dream of justice, true freedom, true democracy and true human rights, is condemned in Geneva as a violator of those rights?

I should not address such a thorny subject at a gathering like this, where I was not planning on speaking, but now that I have been obliged to speak .… When someone speaks, it should be to say something. I will add that today this is perhaps the most united country in the world, and the one with the deepest political conscience. Today this is perhaps the country that is most excited and full of hope for the future.

You all know that just a few days ago a million residents of Havana gathered together in Revolution Square. Yes, just a few days after that condemnation, they gathered infuriated by that colossal offense. And the most incredible thing of all is that those who condemned us can show no other image but that of hell, because those countries—and I am referring specifically to the countries of Latin America—are the complete antithesis of the rights we were talking about. Therefore, there is no reason to be upset. There will be a judge whose verdict cannot be appealed, and that judge will be history.

That is why I was saying that as I looked at all of you here, I asked myself, is this only a medical school? And what good would it do if you all went back to your countries to become part of institutions where, sadly, financial concerns, commercialism and selfishness prevail? What good would it do if no one were willing to go to work in the mountains, the plains, the remote corners of the countryside or marginal neighborhoods of the cities to practice the noble profession of medicine? More than a medical school, our most fervent hope is that this will be a school of solidarity, brotherhood and justice.

I am firmly convinced that it will be so, that it is not in vain that all of the ethnic groups and all of the most humble sectors of your countries are represented in the students of this school and the others, a total of 66 ethnic groups, as we have been told.

What a beautiful sight! Students from all of Latin America and the United States gathered here together, studying side by side. What great pleasure and satisfaction it gave us to listen to the young girl who spoke here, and the other young girl who sang. Just think of the hopes for friendship and brotherhood that could be realized if we all join together under the ideals of justice and equality expressed here by President Carter. The examples he cited were impressive, as when he said that one pill, just one pill, or maybe two, could contribute to eradicating terrible diseases. A noble effort, aimed at alleviating some of the tragedies afflicting human beings in this world, could succeed through the use of the simplest procedures.

And the question that came to my mind was, how much did all of this cost? And it is obvious that the resources invested are minimal. I was thinking of the billions of people on the planet with these same problems, or in danger of being afflicted by them. He did not mention malaria, for example, the tens of millions of people who contract malaria and the millions of people who die of malaria, or typhoid. It was not possible since he was referring specifically to efforts made in the field of medicine, although he mentioned other areas in which the Carter Foundation is working.

Dread was not mentioned; the evening was too lovely to speak of the dread and the dread is called AIDS. When we hear Africa mentioned, it is impossible not to think of the 26 or 28 million people infected with the AIDS virus, the 13 or 14 million children orphaned, the millions of children born HIV positive, which their mothers passed on to them. It is one of the worst tragedies in the history of humankind, and it threatens to exterminate entire nations, and even entire regions.

To any of these figures we would have to add the millions of illiterates, their growing number in the world; the millions of unemployed; the 60 percent or 70 percent of Latin Americans who work in the informal sector, with no security, no social protection whatsoever and no rights, because they have wiped out not only the workers movement and trade unions, but also the most basic rights of workers. How many calamities could be added up!

President Carter told us about the noble efforts of his wife in the study, research and coping with the problems of mental retardation, and that is a major issue. We know, because we are collecting precise data on all of the people who suffer from some sort of disability due to mental retardation. In the capital alone there are over 13,000 cases and each and every one must be studied. We are studying them, as well as training geneticists and equipping laboratories at an accelerated pace, especially since we have learned—and we are not only studying cases of mental retardation, but cases of disabilities due to any other cause—that there are a total of 48,000 people in the capital with some kind of disability.

Based on the information that over 80 different diseases are genetic in origin, we are undertaking a genetic study of all of the cases of mental retardation and of a number of other genetic disorders that children are not born with, but which can afflict them later, resulting from hypothyroidism or polio, another disease that has fortunately been eradicated for some time now, in this and other countries. But there are many cases of disability resulting from either genetic or environmental or accidental causes.

When you begin to look into these things and learn the figures involved, you get a better idea of the many tragedies suffered by human society, and often these people suffer alone, because many are not even aware that this is happening. This is yet another source of satisfaction from this visit today, when we see the efforts they are making to prevent these disorders, in the first place, and to do as much as possible to help those who suffer from them.

I do not want to say too much more on this matter, however, because it is something we could talk about until dawn.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, visiting a special facility for handicapped people during his visit to Cuba in the mid-May, 2002.

What I still need to address are the reasons for which we have welcomed, with respect, warm hospitality and great pleasure, former president Jimmy Carter, his wife, and the delegation accompanying him.

It is not a large delegation. The largest delegation visiting the country with him is the delegation of reporters and journalists, something entirely logical, of course.

Yesterday at the airport we spoke of his efforts to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, in the midst of seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Due to those difficulties, which I will not enumerate here, it was not possible to advance any further at that time. But we felt that acknowledging this fact was a matter of basic historical justice, in addition to acknowledging his courage in visiting our country.

He was courageous to try to improve relations; let no one think that this was an easy thing to do. He has been brave to visit Cuba despite the fact that there would always be those who opposed such a visit, and that he was exposing himself to criticism and slander.

We did not choose a program for his visit, he did it himself. He was primarily interested in the field of education; this was practically his number one interest. He was especially interested in this Latin American School of Medical Sciences, which is perfectly in keeping with what he told us about the efforts they are making in so many countries to promote health, to the extent that their resources allow. They must have acquired a great deal of experience on these matters.

I must say here, and not out of any pretense to personal flattery, that one thing that is clearly obvious is former president Carter’s remarkable intelligence. This is joined, to an even greater degree, by his personal and family ethics. This was truly one of the first things we perceived back during his first speeches as a candidate for president. These are two factors that have been closely linked to his entire history and his personality. And this explains his interest in visiting this school, and also the school for social workers, and other institutions devoted to special education, as well as gathering information on the efforts that our country has been making in the field of health, education, culture and medical research.

While he described the things he has done, I was thinking he has done them with very few resources, because he is an austere man. At the airport, I was expecting him to arrive on one of those big Boeings, and suddenly I saw a little twin-engine plane approach the runway, turn, land and draw up to us. That was why I said to him, and I think it was picked up by the microphones, I did not know there were so many microphones there, “I thought you were going to arrive in one of those big new Boeings.” He came on a modest plane with a small number of people.

As he explained all those programs that I was so glad to hear about and which you have been able to hear about as well as our people, I was thinking to myself that if it is possible to do so much good in the world with just a few dollars, or even a few cents, just think of how much more could be done with the hundreds of billions, or with the trillions of dollars spent around the world to produce weapons, or to produce and consume narcotics, or to produce luxury goods, perhaps one of the most terrible legacies they have passed down to humankind, and I hope they will not last forever, these so-called consumer societies.

A world like he dreams of when fighting diseases, a world like we dream of, a world like all of you dream of, is possible! Yes, it is entirely possible, when people have the knowledge, the education and the conscience needed to live and act with a true spirit of brotherhood, with a true spirit of justice. And I would not consider it to have been in vain, nor would I suffer from the enormous embarrassment I feel at this moment for having talked for a bit longer than I had promised myself, imposing on the patience of our visitors, if these words I have spoken with all my heart, with the greatest sincerity, and even, we could say, with passion, are remembered by you from time to time. Thank you very much.

—Information Office, Cuban Interests Section, May 13, 2002





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