Med students food fight raging in Cuba

2013-02-17 10:00

A group of South African medical students have been stuck at their university in Cuba for several days without food because the department of health hasn’t paid their food bills, they claim.

The students who contacted City Press this week also complained that they didn’t receive enough pocket money from the government, and that they ought to receive as much as diplomats’ children.

But the department hit back, saying they paid the students’ food bills in December, but the problem lies with a “small group” who don’t want to eat Cuban food.

“The problem is their staple diet in Cuba is rice, beans and pork. And about seven of these students don’t eat pork,” he said.

The students emailed City Press on Wednesday, saying they were too frightened to reveal their names or telephone numbers.

They then called on Friday night to say their situation had worsened.

“We had a meeting with the school management where it was confirmed that the department of health hadn’t paid the money necessary for our being here, including for our food,” said an irate student leader.

Joe Maila, spokesperson for Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, said they sent a team of officials to the Caribbean island nation on a “fact-finding mission” to establish how the students “are coping with their studies and how they are adapting socially”.

“We really want to find out what is happening with the food. Where there are serious concerns we will do something immediately. We want these students to succeed. We need more doctors,” he said.

But the students say they haven’t yet seen the officials.

“They were supposed to come to see us today (Friday) but they have apparently decided to go to Varadero because the whole delegation hasn’t arrived yet. I’m sure they will be enjoying the beach and the pina coladas while they are waiting,” the student said.

Now the students have begun to boycott classes and have planned further action.

“We feel so helpless that we have decided that 138 of us are going on a trip to the embassy in Havana with the little funds we have to wait for them there,” the leader said. “They will find us waiting there when the sunburn in Varadero is too much for them.”

There are about 2 000 South African medical students studying in Cuba.

Their course runs for six years, with a year’s practical work in South Africa.

Besides the food, they also complained about the pocket money they receive, saying their $200 (about R1 800) monthly stipend was insufficient and unfair when diplomats’ children receive $700 (R6 200).

They want the same.

“Whenever we ask for change we are reminded of the fact that we are from poor families, squatter camps, that we are women and men with difficulties, children of the storm and we should be grateful for the little we have,” they said.

Maila said this, however, was “pushing it too far”.

“We say it is not too little. They are students, not diplomats. We will look into the food, but we will not look into the stipend.”

He said the dissent came from “the older students at the medical school in Santa Clara, who are out of order”.

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