Geopolitics

Bracing For COVID-19, Argentina Calls On Cuban Doctors

Cuba could repay part of its $2 billion of debts to Argentina by sending some of its renowned medics to treat coronavirus patients in the Buenos Aires province.

A community doctor in Havana, Cuba
A community doctor in Havana, Cuba
Natasha Niebieskikwiat

BUENOS AIRES — Cuba often charges for its renown medical services abroad by bartering with the respective wealth or commodity of the country where its medics are sent. In Europe it is paid in euros currency, while in Venezuela, its healthcare missions are remunerated with crude oil, a resource in constant shortage on the island. Now, in the face of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, sources tell Clarín that Cuban officials are in talks with the government of President Alberto Fernández about sending doctors to Argentina in exchange for food.

These would be sent especially to boost medical cadres fighting the epidemic in and around the capital of Buenos Aires, though it has already prompted opposition among local medical associations and in different social sectors.

This "swap" is not new. In 2004 under the late President Néstor Kirchner, the Cuban government run by brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro proposed exchanging $100 million in Cuban medicines for the same amount of Argentine foodstuffs. A year earlier, Argentina's then foreign minister, Rafael Bielsa, discussed with Cuba the possibility of canceling some of Cuba's debts to Argentina, with talk of $50-million tranches whereby poorer Argentines would receive free medical treatment in Cuban hospitals.

The Buenos Aires province owns 60% share of the GDP of the country's prized livestock, and today sectors in the government remain interested in renewing a debt-for-doctors option with Cuba, though progress is not without obstacles. The idea comes from the Vice-President Cristina Kirchner, who spent all of 2019 and early 2020 traveling back and forth to Havana, where her daughter Florencia is being treated for health issues.

With Cuba, there is an added ideological dimension.

Cuba's debt to Argentina was incurred in 1973 when the Health Minister José B. Gelbard lent Fidel Castro almost $1.3 billion. In 2017 the Argentine Bank of Foreign Trade and Investment stated in a report commissioned by CADAL, a foundation focused on good governance, that by then Cuba owed Argentina $2.6 billion including capital and interests. Some place the debt today at some $4 billion.

As previously reported in Clarin, the provincial government of Buenos Aires led by Axel Kicillof is planning on inviting between a dozen and 250 Cuban physicians requested by Buenos Aires health authorities. This reportedly will only happen if contagion figures supersede a peak figure and the province is hard pushed to cope with patient numbers.

Kicillof's plans were recently confirmed by both the Health and Foreign Ministries. The mayor of the town of Pehuajó, Pablo Zurro, formally asked Kicillof for Cuban doctors on April 21, while the province of Chaco is contemplating a similar move. Their arrival is permitted within the emergency presidential decree allowing use of foreign medical staff without prior confirmation of qualifications.

But various sectors in Argentina, notably doctors, are opposed to foreign recruitment. With Cuba, there is an added ideological dimension: the island nation has long mixed business and medical aid with propaganda, with Central Medical Cooperation Unit sending doctors around the world for the past six decades as proof of the Communist regime's efficiency and humanity. In recent years, with deteriorating economic conditions, these medical missions have turned into the country's leading source of foreign exchange earnings.



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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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