Interview with Health Minister Dr. Sonia Castro

Tortilla con Sal, July 29th 2011

TcS : How important has ALBA been for the programmes of Nicaragua Health Ministry?

Minister Sonia Castro: ALBA's regional project has been of great importance in particular in Nicaragua because it show how governments can unite in a solidarity-based way so as to improve the lives of their peoples. Here in Nicaragua and particularly for this Ministry ALBA has helped us get high technology equipment that had never been available in Nicaragua before so as to cut the cost of a cat scan from around US$600 to nothing, not even one córdoba. Because our starting point is a free service, something that helps the population and also give hope to people who have health problems.

Via ALBA we have managed to build two high technology centres, the Lenin Fonseca in Managua and one in Estelí where we can now do cat scans that weren't done previously and we can now say that hundreds of procedures are carried out for the population each month for free. Now we are giving people the chance of getting their illness, their pathology better diagnosed, above all people with cancer so we can check whether there is metastasis taking place in other parts of their body.

The ALBA project has also meant that mobile consulting units became available to the Ministry  allowing us to bring health care units to remote communities and places. And that cuts the gap and improves people's access to health services. These mobile units include ultrasound, dentistry facilities, gynaecological services and general medical care. So these mobile units go to very remote places difficult to travel from.

But we can also say that in general ALBA lives up to its name in Nicaragua, it really is a dawning, a growing light of a future to come one of common well being and one can see that taking shape in the economic programmes. Because if one improves opportunities and economic possibilities for people one also improves their health. Our function is precisely to create the conditions for people, for individuals, for citizens, for women, men and children that allow them to increase their productive ability because a healthy body allows people to be more productive and to set out each day to improve things for their family, for their partners, for their children going to school.

I think the effects of ALBA come from families well bring, creating better conditions for people and that is what we are seeing. Right now we can say Nicaragua is seeing results by having better health indicators. We have fewer infant deaths, fewer neonatal deaths. We have zero mortality from dengue fever at the moment this year thank God and the efforts of this government but also thanks to support from ALBA. We have better roads – all that has repercussions for the health of the population.

TcS : Has Cuba technical cooperation played a part in the ALBA programmes?

Sonia Castro: In the 1990s the Cubans were rejected here and that brotherly humanitarian aid was not taken advantage of until Comandante Ortega accepted it and the first psychological-pedagogical study for people with disability carried out in this country took place last year, demonstrating the good will and the human aspect of this group of friendly ALBA countries, of the solidarity typical of these countries because we all come from the same classes of working people and rural families united in seeking the common good for all of Latin America.

In practice that study allowed us to reach out to all the Nicaraguan households where there are people with disability. And that project is continuing because now comes the stage of attending to the critical cases, what solution we can offer them, what response we can make to that person, how we deal with their problem now it has been diagnosed in the community.

And at the same time we have the Mission Miracle programme which has been going for four and a half years now, having begun in 2007 and has now carried out more than 80,000 ophthalmological procedures. I would say with complete confidence that one is talking about having saved the sight of over 80,000 people because people could not see because they had cataracts and we can say we gave them their life back and the hope of being able to carry on working and making a go of life, with optimism so as to make a better world for everybody.

I think that is only possible thanks to these ALBA programmes with their solidarity based Christian and socialist character. And they are constant expressions of that which people see all the time and which the population is benefiting from. When someone has sight disability it affects not only the person concerned but their family too who have to care for them because they become dependent.

By contrast, by returning them their sight, that person participates and that helps the whole family and the community. I think ALBA contributes to health care, to the community, to social transformation by way of values because ALBA also sustains educational programmes but above all the hope of being able to  turn society into one of greater justice with equality for all.

TcS : The President of the Central Bank has commented on the formation of the supranational company ALBA-Medicines. How important will that be for the Health Ministry?

Sonia Castro: This is very important because historically our countries have been at the mercy of multinational corporations and although we are impoverished they take every advantage they can because for the multinationals teh objective is to get what they can from you, maximize their investment at any cost regardless of whom they affect.

But ALBA's ethos of Christian solidarity has led it to set about creating ALBA-Medicines as a possible source for supplying at lower cost medicines that are bought on a massive scale by our countries and of course that will mean that we will be able to buy more medicines for the same amount we are paying now and that will help us serve our population better. Because that is the objective, ALBA embodies solidarity it embodies Christian behaviour and making the best use of our available resources so as to do more for people.

So we have to find alternatives. ALBA-Medicines is a project under development to see what's possible to do, to compare the lists of medicines we might use in our different countries and where they might be produced, how best to market them at solidarity-based, Christian, humanitarian prices. As a government and as a Ministry we need to be part of that process and ensure that our procurement policy includes those medicines.In teh end people will benefit because they will have access to more medicines for the same price we pay now.

TcS : A general comment?

Sonia Castro: I think too that people in Nicaragua are showing confidence in ALBA and in President Daniel Ortega as a result of his good government. In this country it is the People who are President. The People take charge of their Projects and design them. We are protagonists but involve the community in an organized way so they too are part of solving problems. I think that is something very important to mention because if the People do not feel these programmes are important to them we won't be successful. But that is the style of our President's good government that obliges us in the government institutions to ensure that the community and individual citizens participate in solving our problems and furthermore monitor the correct administration of available resources.