The Henry Reeve Brigades and the fruits of revolution

The COVID-19 global pandemic is a historic event. And the reactions to this event show the true character of a nation and its social, political, and economic systems.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cuba, whose renowned Henry Reeve International Brigades, with their health solidarity missions in 70 countries, have inspired a campaign to award them this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

But what are the Henry Reeve Brigades and who is Henry Reeve?

Henry Reeve was a young U.S. soldier in the Union Army who, after the Civil War, volunteered to fight in Cuba’s First War for Independence where he was killed in battle at the age of 26, in 1876.

But what does that have to do with Cuban doctors travelling around the world saving lives?

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina and the United States’s extremely negligent response to the disaster, Cuba offered 1586 doctors, 36 tons of medicine, and diagnostic help to the U.S., which was rejected by George W. Bush. Afterwards, Fidel Castro, clearly understanding irony, renamed the brigades the Henry Reeve International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Serious Epidemics, and sent 27 brigades to 19 countries, showing the world the true meaning of “Internationalist Solidarity.”

Since then, the brigades have travelled throughout the world, helping in the most dangerous disasters and epidemics, from Nepal and Guatemala to Africa in order to treat Ebola, and now Italy and elsewhere to treat COVID-19.

But this solidarity is nothing new for Cuba. From the very start of the Revolution in 1959, Cuba has always shown international solidarity, notably sending material and medical aid to Chile after an earthquake in 1960, and also to newly-independent Algeria in 1963.

Even as a nascent revolutionary state economically blockaded by the US, whose monetary reserves were pillaged by the Batista dictatorship, and had lost over half of its doctors and other professionals in “brain drain” to the U.S., Cuba always gave and helped, without needing a “surplus” to do so. What does that say about “richer” countries who have so much resources, but can’t or won’t provide real aid for not just other countries, but not even their own people? 

Through its continuing revolutionary process, Cuba has been able to exemplify “people over profits,” working through a long, brutal blockade to meet the needs of its people, creating its own formidable biotech sector, and training enough medical professionals to have one of the highest amount of doctors per capita in the world in a country with free universal health care.

It takes a revolution to get to this point. It needed the revolutionary Cuban state, along with the revolutionary Cuban people, creating the fully integrated society of which the Henry Reeve Brigades and the medical sector is only a part of; creating the alternative to the worst parts of capitalism now undeniable in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Look at the U.S. today. The richest country in the world cannot do even a little bit of what Cuba has done. From the international solidarity to the fully integrated community system of health care, it simply can’t. There are too many private interests. It’s a system that can’t help people, because it’s only occupied with making profit. 

But Cuba leads the way, along with other countries walking the socialist path such as Vietnam, China, and Venezuela. Based on the response to COVID-19 alone, these countries not only show the failures and shortcomings of capitalism, but more importantly, that another way is both possible AND necessary.

So this 26th of July, the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks that started the Cuban revolutionary movement, we must remind ourselves that through both triumphs and setbacks, the Cuban revolution has achieved far more than anything Fidel and the 26 of July movement could have imagined back then, the fruits of a struggle that give us only a taste of what is possible if the people take control and change their world.

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