Fidel Castro’s Free Help for Young Ukrainian Chernobyl Victims

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


On the day of the death of the leader of the Cuban revolution it’s important to remember that our country obliged to him for thousands of children’s lives.

Despite it being the weekend, the majority of Ukrainian news agencies immediately reported the news about the death of Fidel Castro, by highlighting it in capital letters. And even absolutely hostile to everything left-wing “Ukrainian Pravda”, called the deceased as the leader of the Cuban revolution, not daring to put this definition in ironic quotation marks.

This attention is quite explainable — because the inheritance of the revolution, which is inseparably linked with the names of Castro and Che Guevara, to this day keeps its world-historical meaning, and Fidel’s death sparked a global information wave that rolled to our peripheral and decommunised country. However, none of our journalists have yet written about the Ukrainian inheritance of the deceased Cuban revolutionary, thanks to which it was possible to save the lives and health of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children.

During his long 90 years of life, Fidel Castro was in Ukraine only twice — in May, 1963, and January, 1964. During his first visit, Castro visited the “Arsenal” plant, the University of Shevchenko, and one of the suburban collective farms. In the city centre he was welcomed enthusiastically by Kiev residents — teenagers and even adults climbed trees in Pervomaisky Park to see the open-top car from which waved a bearded man in camouflage, who was brightly prominent on the background of his accompanying Soviet party members.

In the following years, Castro did not come to our country, although relations between Ukraine and Cuba steadily grew — Havana bought “Antonov” airplanes, Voroshilovgrad trains, and built-in Nikolaev cargo carriers, Ukrainian experts helped the development of industry in Cuba, and thousands of Cuban students were educated in the universities of Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa, and Lvov.

However, in the early 90’s, when the Soviet Union was collapsing, he approved the beginning of an aid program to Ukrainian children suffering from the consequences of the Chernobyl accident. It lasted almost a quarter of a century, and became one of the most remarkable examples of real humanism, which was in striking contrast with the market reality of our era.

In February 1990, the headquarters of emergency situations of the central committee of the Komsomol of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic addressed to the world community with a request for assistance to affected children, as the number of accident-related diseases was increasing rapidly, and the economic crisis made it impossible to cope with this situation independently.

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Neither the US nor Western European countries, who at this time experienced the honeymoon period of the relationship with the Soviet leadership and actively contributed to the formation of the liberal-nationalist opposition, did not respond to this appeal. However, Cuba responded to it almost instantly.

The Consul General of Cuba in the USSR Sergio Lopez Briel, who later became the first Cuban Ambassador to Ukraine, called the central committee of the Komsomol of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and offered assistance from the Cuban government. After this a group of leading Cuban doctors flew to Kiev, including experts with world-known names — the main oncologist of Cuba Martha Longchong and Director of the Institute of Hematology and Immunology, José Manuel Santovenia.

They conducted an evaluation of patients and informed Fidel Castro that thousands of teenagers need help. The Cuban leadership immediately approved the state program of assistance to Chernobyl children, inviting them for treatment in a children’s camp in Tarara, on the basis of which a modern medical centre was hastily equipped. Moreover, Fidel personally addressed to Cuban pioneers with a request to share their camp with ill Ukrainian peers.

Ambassador Sergio Lopez Briel, who visited in the 90’s our Marxist group at the philosophy department of the Polytechnic Institute, recalled that the Cubans almost from the beginning had to implement this program on their own. The Soviet leadership demonstratively distanced itself at this time from Cuba, minimizing the cooperation with the government of Castro, and local party officials sensitively felt the trends at the time.

After all, in the countries of Eastern Europe the political system just changed, and it was deemed to be acceptable to think that the Cuba, which was deprived of Soviet support, is awaiting inevitable collapse. The initiative of treatment of Ukrainian children did not need virtually any support — problems arose even with the delivery of children to Cuba. However, they managed to solve this thanks to the personal intervention of Castro.

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On 29th March he personally came to the airport together with the leadership of the Cuban Ministry of Health to meet at the ramp the first group of 139 children with cancer diagnoses and blood disorders. “We will help as long as is needed,” said Fidel to journalists on the question of how much Cuba, which is suffering from a severe crisis, will provide.

In the following years, the Republic of Cuba spent on the program of assistance to Ukrainian children almost $400 million. In the framework of the program of assistance to Chernobyl children about 26,000 Ukrainian children were treated for free. Cuban doctors did six bone marrow transplants, two kidney transplants, 16 cardiovascular and more than 600 neurological and orthopaedic operations.

At the camp in Tarara psychologists and physical therapists were working with Ukrainians, which allowed the children to rehabilitate after the disease. We visited this modern centre, with its beautiful beaches, where our kids created a Ukrainian school.

In one of its classes, a small, modest portrait of Fidel hung. The children wrote their dreams on fleshy leaves of Ceiba, a local tree of desires — and it was possible to read on them the grateful words addressed to Cuba, and the inscription: “I want to stay here”, “I want Anya to recover”, “I want, I beg, I pray that Dasha’s hair grows”, “I want to come back here again.”

It is important to understand — during all presidents of Ukraine, our government, in the best case, ignored this medical program, not wanting to irritate the United States. In addition, it was embarrassing to admit the fact that the distant country with a reputation of a “conservation area of the Soviet Union” was treating for free Ukrainian children, who were unwanted in their homeland.

Flights to Cuba every time were organized with great difficulty by the efforts of individuals such as the Communist Deputy Vasily Tereshchuk or the Ombudsman Nina Karpachova. The Ukrainian media was silent about the camp in Tarara, unlike the pure advertising history of Nastya Ovchar, who had a surgical operation in the US.

Finally, just after the “Orange revolution”, when President Yushchenko solemnly pledged in Washington to bring democracy to Belarus and Cuba, the Chernobyl program was on the verge of collapse. A group of parents of Ukrainian children went to the presidential administration, and since it was the first protest action after Maidan, Yushchenko came down to them, along with his assistant Tretyakov.

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We attended this meeting and heard how President, who afterwards cynically abandoned in his country the children’s cancer clinic “Hospital of the future”, stated ungraciously that he knows better with who Ukraine should cooperate with. And immediately after this, on Bankova Street a high fence was erected, marking the advent of a new democratic era.

The programme of assistance to the Chernobyl children was devoid of any greed. Neither Cuba or Fidel Castro himself received from it political or economic dividends. Moreover, in this aid there was nothing unique – during the last decades, Cuban doctors, among whom was the daughter of Che, Aleida Guevara, carried out a humanitarian mission in the most poor countries of the third world. And those who watched the filmed Michael Moore’s film “Sicko” know that in Havana US citizens are treated who have no money to go to the doctors back home.

In helping ill Ukrainian teenagers, Cuba only confirmed those values that were the essence of the Cuban revolution, not having any illusions about the Ukrainian authorities, and without waiting for their thanks and support. It was others who thanked — I remember how a woman from Western Ukraine, the mother of one of the cured children, brought Cuban diplomats an embroidered Hutsul blanket.

Ten years have passed, it is awkward for Ukrainians to remember Viktor Yushchenko and the “Orange revolution”, the memory of which is covered with fragments of shattered illusions. There is no doubt that ten years later, Ukrainians will also try to forget the disgusting characters who seized power at the end of Euromaidan, and its aftermath will seem in the future a bloody nightmarish farce.

But the name of Fidel Castro has long stood the test of time – precisely because it embodies a real revolutionary process, the meaning of which was felt in their own way around the world — including, in Ukraine.

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