How socialist Cuba helped Ukrainian children

From the Cuban documentary film “Sacha, A Child of Chernobyl.”

The United States Congress just cut $15.6 billion in coronavirus aid from a budget bill. It did so to ship nearly $14 billion in weapons and other war supplies to Ukraine. Other NATO countries have also sent billions of dollars in deadly arms.

But where was the U.S. government and its NATO allies when Ukrainians desperately needed medical help following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster? 

These capitalist regimes didn’t do much as Ukrainians suffered and died from radiation poisoning. It was like President Bush letting Black and poor people drown and starve in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

The April 26, 1986, Chernobyl tragedy occured as the Soviet Union was under increasing threat from the Reagan administration. In 1983 NATO staged the “Able Archer” exercises that ended with a simulated nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

The year before Chernobyl, in a sharp turn to the right, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party. The country of 280 million people that defeated Hitler was starting to go down a swift slope towards the overthrow of its socialist system. 

The year after Chernobyl, Gosplan ― the agency that guided the Soviet Union’s planned socialist economy ― was dissolved. So was the socialist state’s control of its foreign trade that kept the capitalist world market at bay.

These reactionary measures unraveled the socialist economy that had been built by the working class through a dozen five-year plans. The first victim was the solidarity between different nationalities and peoples.

This friendship was forged by the 1917 socialist revolution that led to the world’s first and largest affirmative action program. It was further strengthened during World War II when 27 million Soviet people of a hundred ethnicities died saving the world from the Nazis.

Now it was everyone for themselves. Health care suffered as sectors became privatized.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, as well as Belarusians and Russians, fell ill from the Chernobyl meltdown and explosion. Many died. Most heartbreaking were the children who developed cancers and other diseases.

Fidel welcomes the children

Socialist Cuba stepped up to help. The small country treated 26,000 children from the former Soviet republics between 1990 and 2011. A large majority were Ukrainian.

The first planeload of children arrived at Havana airport from the then existing Soviet Union on March 29, 1990. Even though it was late at night, Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz was there. He sympathetically greeted each of the 139 children who came.

Fidel, the historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, described how this vast program came about: “This was a request from the Leninist Youth of Ukraine and later coordination with the authorities of Ukraine and the Soviet Union. We said ‘yes’ immediately and took all the necessary steps in the shortest time.

“I believe that we can give optimum attention to these children here. We have the necessary conditions and I hope that we can be as successful as possible.”

Tarará, a beautiful resort village on the eastern edge of Havana, was taken over to treat the children. The program lasted until Nov. 24, 2011.

During these 21 years, 26,114 children received care. The vast majority of children were saved. Over 21,000 were under 15 years old.

Thousands of surgeries were performed. The 170,000 clinical studies became an invaluable database on radiation-caused diseases in children. It was shared with the rest of the world.

No one was asked if they had insurance. In socialist Cuba health care is considered a human right ― not a commodity to make profits from like in the capitalist United States. 

Soon after the first children arrived Cuba was thrust into what it called a “special period.” More than two-thirds of the island country’s foreign trade was cut off as counter revolutions swept the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe.

The U.S. continued trying to strangle the Cuban Revolution. It tightened its economic blockade with Congress passing the Helms-Burton bill.

Yet not a single Cuban hospital or school was closed. Cuba continued to treat Chernobyl survivors at no cost to their families.

Sacha’s story

Many of the sick children stayed at Tarará for 45 days. Others stayed longer, sometimes a year or more. That was the case of Olexandr Savchenko, nicknamed Sacha.

The young boy was from the Ukrainian village of Chernigov near Chernobyl. About a year after the explosion Sacha became sick.

In Cuba it was discovered he had a cancerous tumor. Chemotherapy is particularly rough for kids but Sacha pulled through. When the test results came back normal, meaning the cancer had disappeared, everyone around Sacha clapped.

Not every child won their battle with cancer. But the Cubans did everything they could.

Many of the children had skin diseases including alopecia, which results in the loss of all body hair. Here psychologists played a key role.

Children learned not to be ashamed of themselves. The friendships formed along with the beautiful beach were part of the remedy. 

Young women survivors would hold joint quinceañera celebrations of their fifteenth birthdays. Cuban translators became a vital connection between health workers and children.

A wonderful film about this humanitarian program is “Sacha, A Child of Chernobyl.” It can be seen on YouTube.

The film was directed by Cuban film-makers Roberto Chile and Maribel Acosta Damas and produced by the Argentine news agency Resumen Latinoamericano. Included are remarks by Her Excellency, Lianys Torres Rivera, the Cuban Ambassador to the United States.

The late Pan-African teacher and organizer Elombe Brath, a founder of the December 12th Movement, declared “When Africa called, Cuba answered.” 

Over 2,000 Cuban soldiers died fighting alongside their African comrades in Angola. Together they defeated the Nazi armies of apartheid South Africa.

Socialist Cuba also answered when Ukrainian children needed help. Many Ukrainians haven’t forgotten.

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