Medical clinic in Bolivia honors legacy of Che Guevara and Cuban medicine

World Today

Eliecer Gamboa, a Cuban Doctor at La Higuera clinic. (PHOTO: Michael Voss)

When Che Guevara launched his ill-fated attempt to start a popular uprising in Bolivia and spread revolution across South America, he was accompanied by 15 Cuban guerrilla fighters, many of whom died there. Now, there are 15 Cubans back at some of the same locations, only this time, they’re armed with medicines not guns.

CGTN’s Michael Voss has this report on Cuban doctors working in Bolivia.

La Higuera is an isolated village in the foothills of the Andes. Its claim to fame is that this was where Ernesto Che Guevara, the Argentine-born medic turned guerrilla fighter died, executed in 1967 after being captured nearby.

Now half a century later, Cuba has honored Che’s memory by opening a medical clinic in the village staffed by Cuban doctors who spend between six months to a year living in the community. The day we arrived in La Higuera, Cuban medic Iriade Cespedes was treating a young boy with an infected foot.

“It’s an honor, because Che always wanted to take healthcare and education to the most remote areas.” Cespedes said.

Bolivian medical center

Vaccination day in La Higuera.

There is little to do in the village, which is now reduced to barely 80 people and often without electricity for days on end. Cespedes has been on other medical missions abroad, including in Venezuela.

“We have to adapt ourselves. It’s a small community, at times without electricity, but we are here anyway doing our job.”

The nearest town is Vallegrande, a three-hour drive on dirt roads. This colonial provincial capital, with a population of around 11,000 is also connected to Che Guevara. It’s where his body was taken from La Higuera. Before being buried in a secret grave on the edge of town, his corpse was laid out in the laundry room of the local Señor de Malta hospital on show for the world to see.

Today there are 15 Cuban medics working out of the same hospital, including Cespedes in La Higuera. They are part of around 750 Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians currently working in Bolivia. Anesthesiologist Eliecer Gamboa heads the Cuban contingent, they are called Medical Brigades, in Vallegrande.

“We bring specialists. The Bolivian doctors practice mainly general medicine. Our team ranges from a surgeon to a pediatrician. We are all specialists here,” Gamboa said.

Cuban doctor

Cuban doctor Dunia Ferrer with patient at La Higuera.

Among the team is a trauma surgeon, a pediatrician, and an intensive care specialist. Dr Dunia Ferrer an internal medicine specialist, had been based in another part of Bolivia but asked to come here because of its connections to Che Guevara.

Cuban medics first arrived in Bolivia in 2006, shortly after its left wing President Evo Morales was first elected. Here, in Vallegrande, they helped renovate and staff the hospital.

Eliecer Gamboa, Cuban Doctor

Eliecer Gamboa, Cuban Doctor. (PHOTO: Michael Voss)

There are other private medical facilities in the town, but they charge for treatment. Patients at this hospital are treated for free.

Policarpio Severiche, a 77-year-old farmer, believes he wouldn’t be alive today without the free treatment he received.

“They are really good. Twice, I’ve been seriously ill, and both times the Cuban doctors helped save my life.” Severiche said.

Bolivia: Policarpio Severiche

Patient Policarpio Severiche.

Almost half of the doctors at this hospital are Cuban and several of the Bolivians were sent to Cuba to get their medical degrees. Among them was Dr Litzy Roca, who was has a geriatric outpatients clinic at the hospital. She graduated three years ago, returning to Bolivia after spending seven years in Cuba on a full scholarship.

“It’s really magnificent. Without these scholarships, we couldn’t study what are such expensive courses. Thanks to them we were able to become doctors.”

Doctor Litsy Roca, a Bolivian physician. (PHOTO: Michael Voss)

In the past, Cuba and Che Guevara tried to spread revolution through armed struggle. These days, it’s using medical diplomacy to help to win hearts and minds.