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Humanitarian aid: a timely teaching moment at the Cuban Film Festival

Cuba’s continuing aid to the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident is the subject of “Un Traductor (A Translator),” the first film in the upcoming Cuban Film Festival.

The threat of the coronavirus to become a global pandemic is the latest reminder that the survival of our species depends increasingly on international solidarity. To think that we can wall ourselves off from such scourges, in a world where we’re only one air flight away from them, is naïve at best and dangerous at worst.

August H. Nimtz Jr.
August H. Nimtz Jr.
International relations scholar Michael Barnett defines humanitarianism as “the attempt to reduce the suffering of distant strangers.” No government anywhere in the world has displayed such selfless conduct as the one in Havana. There may be individuals and organizations that exemplify Barnett’s definition, but there is no other government that comes close to qualifying for it — including its neighbor 90 miles to the north. Governments can mobilize resources, even one in a so-called Third World or underdeveloped country, that the most well-intentioned individual or organization can’t.

Exhibit A, Cuba’s continuing aid to the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. The disaster was put back on the radar of many or introduced to a new generation with the recent highly acclaimed HBO series. Missing from the portrait, however, was Cuba’s continuing efforts to treat the Chernobyl victims.

The Minnesota Cuba Committee’s 11th Cuban Film Festival, Feb. 27 to April 2, seeks to rectify that oversight. “Un Traductor (A Translator),” the first film, tells the story of Malin, a Russian literature professor at the University of Havana, sent to translate between Cuban doctors and children sent from the USSR for medical treatment. Torn from the abstract world of academia and forced into the relentlessly real world of medicine, Malin becomes increasingly depressed. When he meets a child who tells him a story, he connects with the kids and finds his way through. Just as he adapts to his new job, the Berlin Wall falls and Cuba enters the deepest economic crisis the island has ever known without renouncing its commitment to treat the children.

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Coming to the aid of others in distant places who don’t look like us, with very different skin colors and languages, is what makes Cuba’s aid to Ukrainians so singular. But it’s part of a long tradition that goes back to the beginning years of the Revolution with its first military and humanitarian assistance to the freedom struggle in Algeria in 1961.

The most well known recent example of what Cubans do is the 256 volunteers who went in 2014-2015 to successfully fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The Cubans call what they do proletarian internationalism, in the more than century-old Marxist tradition. It resembles what anthropologists call the “sharing ethic.” As Fidel Castro put it about the Ebola mission in October 2014: “The medical personnel who will go anywhere to save lives, even at the risk of losing their own, are the greatest example of solidarity a human being can offer, above all because they aren’t motivated by material interest.”

Enemies, opponents and skeptics of the Cuban Revolution allege that what the Cubans do can only be self-serving. The allegation depends on the belief that humans are only motivated to do good for others if rewarded with material benefits. Cuba’s doctors, nurses, and medical technicians who volunteer for these missions are, therefore, according to such claims, victims of “exploitative and coercive labor practices,” “human trafficking,” even “modern slavery.” Cuba has recently been forced to withdraw its volunteers from Brazil and Bolivia owing to such allegations.

At the end of the film there will be a Q&A to address such accusations, as well as any other questions about what Cubans regard as a long and proud tradition.

August H. Nimtz Jr. is a professor of political science and African American and African Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Minnesota.


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