Cuba, a humbling experience
September 16, 2005

Cuba, a humbling experience

by Dr. Douglas Slater

Twenty-five years ago, I made a decision that has impacted notably on my life. As a boy it was always my dream and expectation that I will become a Medical Doctor. To be honest it was as much my parents and close relatives dream as it was mine. Then, I belonged to that growing group of “bright” kids from poor families that recognized that the surest way out of poverty was through education. This fact is still as relevant today as it was then and will be so for a long time to come.{{more}}

By 1980, after earning a B.Sc degree at the U.W.I, I had applied to and was accepted into the Medical Faculty in Jamaica on two occasions – 1976 and 1980. I was well on the way preparing for studies in Jamaica when lack of funding stopped me in my tracks! A childhood friend of mine Berwyn King, knowing my situation contacted me one day asking whether I would wish to go to Cuba to study medicine. Then, as young progressives with connections to the United People’s Movement (UPM), we were confronted with the ideological conflicts of that era. And as much as some of us would have had exposure to the progressive ideology of Socialism, to make that step of actually going to Cuba was considered revolutionary and even seditious by some. With little option left to me to fulfill my/our dreams, I discussed the matter with the person whom I considered then to be most influential in my life, my aunt and guardian Miss Germaine Stephens. It was a pleasant surprise to me that she gave her unreserved blessings.

The final arrangements were made with important assistance from Mr. Renwick Rose and Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of the UPM leadership, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their futuristic vision.

I was one of the first three Vincentian pioneers to study in Cuba, the others – Mr. Andreas Wickham, now Permanent Secretary, Tourism and Culture and Mr. Berwyn King Agronomist/IT Specialist, now residing in the USA. It was an exciting challenge adjusting to life in Cuba, but we managed well and enjoyed our experiences.

My meeting with my Cuban relatives of Vincentian descent was like the virtual prodigal son story. We three were the first Vincentians those blood relatives of mine were meeting since their father/grandfather arrived on Cuban shores back in 1930s. The three of us students were considered relatives just by virtue of being Vincentians.

Adjusting to Cuban lifestyle was not too difficult for us but I think it depended on one’s maturity, discipline, and political experience with respect to the knowledge of the philosophy and understanding of world and regional politics of that era. In Cuba, we learnt first hand of solidarity among peoples of distinct cultures and especially the dispossessed. We met, lived with and studied among Arabs, Asians, Europeans, Africans and Latinos; most with a commonality of belonging to the struggle of their peoples against injustice, poverty and oppression brought about by imperialism, dictatorship and various forms of discrimination, including apartheid.

I received an excellent education, much more valuable than the medical degree, and a second language. I was humbled. I am certain that I am a much better human being today, having gone to Cuba 25 years ago.

I learnt to be more tolerant; to make do with what was available, to appreciate the struggles and sufferings of others. I saw how a poor developing country like Cuba was able to help others, even when it had endured a difficult struggle itself, such as a trade blockade from the world’s most powerful nation and its closest neighbour.

I met many great friends from all over the world. I met my dear wife and even got married in Cuba, a somewhat novel idea to this day for students in Cuba.

I am and will forever be grateful to the people of Cuba, whose hard work, sacrifice and solidarity have provided myself, hundreds of Vincentians and thousands of persons worldwide with an invaluable opportunity of preparing ourselves to contribute to nation building in our respective countries.

May the love, respect and solidarity between Vincentians and Cubans continue to grow and develop. I am proud to have been part of this history.

The Hon. Dr. Douglas Slater, the present Minister of Health and the Environment hails from Clare Valley and graduated from the University of Havana, Faculty of Medical Sciences in 1987. He met Sherian Taylor, (a Jamaican medical student then) on campus in Havana and they married in a double ceremony with two other Vincentian students, Andreas and Yvette Barnwell in 1985. Drs. Slater have two children, Shane, 18 and Sherina, 13.