By Joanne Shansky
“¡Elsa! ¿Cómo estás?” exclaimed Dr. Luther Castillo with a huge smile and a very warm hug. In a rare relaxing moment during a recent whirlwind visit to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Dr. Castillo was reunited with a family friend from his Garífuna community on the northern coast of Honduras.
Dr. Castillo, founder of the first Garífuna hospital and head of the largest international team of physicians working in Haiti, was in town to share his experiences and speak on the topic of health care as a universal right. He traveled with Dr. Juan Almendares, rector of the National University of Honduras, long-time human rights activist, and highly-respected leader of the resistance movement against the June, 2009 military coup.
In several talks, Dr. Almendares addressed the ongoing crisis caused by the coup, which overthrew democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya. Since the coup occurred, there have been widespread reprisals against coup resistance leaders, labor union activists, farmers and others. The situation continues to be grave. Since early March, six journalists have been murdered, and a teacher who had been active in the resistance was killed in front of his students. In fact, both doctors themselves have received serious threats for speaking out against the coup, and friends in both Honduras and the US fear for their safety. Father Ismael Moreno (Padre Melo), a Jesuit priest who spoke in Milwaukee in early March, is director of Radio Progreso, one of the few independent media outlets left in Honduras. He, too, has received a recent series of new death threats.
Dr. Almendares spoke of the current struggle between campesinos and wealthy landholders in the area of Bajo Aguán in northern Honduras. There the interests of local people who want to farm in the traditional manner clash with the desire of agribusiness to control the land in order to grow African Palm, which can be used to produce biodiesel. And, according to a 2008 report from the US embassy in Tegucigalpa titled “The Future of African Palm in Honduras”, it appears that the US has taken an interest in this matter, too.
Tensions escalated in the area during the last few weeks when thousands of Honduran soldiers were sent to Bajo Aguán. A massacre was feared, but was averted with the signing of a preliminary agreement regarding land use between the government and the campesino group MUCA , the Unified Movement of Aguán Farmers.
Dr. Almendares noted that the same people who led the coup are now in power in Honduras, following an election in November that was widely boycotted because of the repressive conditions under which it was held, such as the frequent closing of independent media by the coup leaders in the months leading up to the vote. He emphasized that the resistance movement is a nonviolent movement, but is continually being met with violence and serious human rights violations. But he also said that the resistance movement is the strongest political force in the country. In his opinion, the coup represents an international phenomena and he stressed the importance of international support for the resistance.
During an event at a local church, Dr. Castillo described the history of his community. As descendants of escaped African slaves and indigenous people, the Garífuna developed a common solidarity from their suffering, as expressed in their saying “I for you and you for me”. As he stated, they definitely “did not come to Honduras for tourism.” They share a unique culture, language and a proud history of struggle against discrimination.
Dr. Castillo is a 2005 graduate of the Latin American Medical School (ELAM) in Havana, Cuba. While studying medicine, he and other students returned home to Honduras during summers, and with the help of Cuban medical personnel and international organizations such as MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba), they created the Luaga Hatuadi Waduheñu Foundation (“For the Health of our People” in the Garífuna language). This led to the construction of the hospital in the village of Ciriboya, clinics in 12 other remote areas, the establishment of free and preventive health care following the Cuban model, and training of local people as nurses and health promoters. As the Cuban medical school emphasizes, and as Dr. Castillo stated, “We have a responsibility to return back to help our community.”
Dr. Castillo described how after the coup last year, the military raided the Garífuna hospital, breaking down the door in an attempt to intimidate the community. But when the military arrived a second time, they were met by a large group of local people who were not about to give up the care they had been receiving. The hospital is vital to the community whose health problems include, according to Dr. Castillo, women who suffer complications during labor and have to travel 16 hours to get to the nearest hospital – 4 hours carried in a hammock, 4 hours by canoe, and 8 hours in the back of a car. Life expectancy is 50-52 years.
As critical as is the need for medical care in Honduras, the January earthquake in Haiti presented an even more urgent crisis. Dr. Castillo was instrumental in contacting his former classmates from ELAM to form an international medical team for Haiti. These doctors had learned the importance of humanitarian work and living in solidarity with “the poorest of the poor” from their training in Cuba. They responded enthusiastically. Today approximately 300 doctors from more than 20 countries, including the US, work under the direction of Dr. Castillo and others, including 400 Haitian doctors. As Dr. Castillo put it, “It is a great honor to be there, and with the Haitians, to rebuild the health system in the spirit of solidarity we learned at ELAM in Cuba.”
When Dr. Castillo was asked what was his greatest challenge in Haiti, he spoke of the difficulty of leaving his work in Honduras where “we have… an earthquake every day”. He also pointed out the importance of communicating directly with the Haitian people whose greatest need is for food, health care, education, not “US Marines with guns in the streets.”
The medical team in Haiti is young, with the oldest just 35 years old. In describing some of the conditions they are working under, Dr. Castillo said that in many cases, they have to sleep two persons to a one-person tent. Some of the male doctors don’t want to do this, and “you snore too much” is commonly heard.
But Dr. Castillo laughs and keeps it all in perspective. He says simply, “They get used to it.”
The documentary film ¡Salud! highlights the international work of Cuban-trained doctors, including Dr. Castillo. Go to: www.saludthefilm.net
For more information or how to donate to the ongoing medical projects in Honduras and Haiti, visit the MEDICC website.