On Monday, April 5th, two Cuban medical students spoke about contemporary Cuba in an open forum at American University in Washington, DC. The students, Yenaivis Fuentes Ascencio and Aníbal Ramos Socarrás*, are the first students to receive visas from the United States since 2002 after President Bush severely curtailed academic exchanges between the United States and Cuba. In fact, in one positive advancement under the Obama Administration, visas for Cubans to travel to the United States are up approximately 65 percent overall, according to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Yenaivis and Aníbal began their discussion by comparing and contrasting Cuba before the revolution and after, in addition to sharing some of their general perspectives regarding U.S.-Cuban relations. They addressed three important aspects of Cuban society: the role of women and the status of the health and education systems. Women today make up 70 percent of the professional workforce. And, while it’s well known that every Cuban citizen has access to free education and free health care, what receives less attention, they said, is the particular emphasis the Cuban health system places and preventative care and promoting health awareness among the population. Cuba’s robust education and health care systems have trained more doctors than are needed on the island, allowing Cuba to send them abroad as a humanitarian gesture to the world’s poorest and most at-risk communities.
At the forum, no topics were off limits. The Cuban medical students responded to questions ranging from immigration, agriculture and the electoral process, to the “battle of ideas,” homosexuality, corruption, the future of the revolution, and the possibility of a female president in Cuba.
In a lighter, touching moment, Yenaivis and Aníbal were dumbfounded when one attendee asked: “Why did you choose to study medicine, instead of driving a taxi or working in the tourist industry where you could make more money?” Aníbal began his response jokingly, saying that he’d wanted to “cut open people” since he was a little boy, but then went on to explain how his recent time working with a Cuban medical brigade in Haiti had reaffirmed his commitment to serving the world as a doctor. “This is our wealth,” he said, referring to the personal reward of providing health care for people who are in need or have never seen a doctor in their life.
Yenaivis and Aníbal will be making similar presentations in the Washington, DC-area, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota over the next three weeks. Their visit to the United States gives U.S. citizens a rare opportunity to hear from and exchange directly with Cubans, humanizing both sides in the process, helping U.S. people understand something more of the realities of the Cuban revolution, and hinting at what’s possible if the ban on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba is lifted by Congress soon. “One bee cannot make the hive,” said Yenaivis. Indeed, only through a united effort is change possible.
*Yenaivis, 23, has completed five years of study at the School of Medical Sciences in Guantánamo. She is currently finishing her sixth and final year of undergraduate medical studies in Havana. In addition to her studies, Fuentes is serving as the National Public Health Education Coordinator of the Federation of University Students (FEU). Aníbal, 30, is a third-year graduate student in surgery at the Manzanillo School of Medical Sciences at the University of Granma where he finished his undergraduate medical studies with honors. Ramos served one year in Haiti with a volunteer medical brigade. He is also a leader in FEU at the School of Medical Sciences in Manzanillo.