In the last 16 years, the Bolivarian Revolution facilitated international alliances in the interests of improving the livelihoods of oppressed peoples especially in Latin America. Following the Cuban Revolution’s medical tradition, Venezuela is also home to the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) where students from Mexico to Palestine to Namibia study engineering and medicine free of cost with the caveat that they return to their countries of origin and serve their people.
Tesalia Arzu Pastor is Garifuna, which is a community of African-Indigenous people from Honduras, and she is one of more than 300 students who entered the school’s third class in 2009.
Of the 27 Hondurans in the program, she is the only Garifuna student. Among her class are students selected from: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Gambia, St. Vincent, Dominica, Ecuador, Panama and Bolivia Arzu began her studies in Venezuela a month before the coup d’etat against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya June 28 2009.
In this exclusive interview with writer Jeanette Charles, she speaks to her appreciation of the Venezuelan people and their Bolivarian Revolution, learning from Cuban and Venezuelan revolutionaries whose only weapon is a stethoscope, her path to becoming a doctor and a mother as well as the plans she to return to practice medicine in Honduras as a medical profession whose experience prioritizes people over profits. This is her story.
Jeanette Charles: Tell me about your people and where you’re from.
Tesalia Arzu: I am from Limon, Colon, a Garifuna village along the North Coast of Honduras. We are majority Garifuna [an African-Indigenous people] who live in Limon but there are also other indigenous people like the Miskito as well as Ladinos (Latinos) and foreigners. Our people live off the land and the sea.
JC: How did you get to Venezuela and how were you selected to attend the ELAM?
TA: Honestly, I came to Venezuela with the help of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (Ofraneh), an organization where I have organized since I was a youth. In 2008, Comandante Hugo Chavez came to Honduras and had a very special connection with my people, with the Garifuna people. When he came, there were various organizations awaiting his arrival. His presence was very strong and I remember that our drums immediately started to sound. The Garifuna, we are always present with our identity, our culture, our drums. Even though his security guards tried to stop him, Chavez tried to get closer to the people. He extended his hand to the president of my organization, Miriam Miranda, and her told her, “God bless your people.”
On another occasion Chavez came to Honduras with President Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), President Rafael Correa (Ecuador), President Evo Morales (Bolivia), then President Cristina Fernandez (Argentina) and former President Lula Da Silva (Brazil). They went to Honduras to sign the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) and they spoke to our people about the opportunities and improvements this treaty would bring in scholarships, transportation, low gas costs and other projects for our country.
Comandante Hugo Chavez came to Honduras and had a very special connection with my people, with the Garifuna people.
Three months following the signing, Miriam told me that they were offering scholarships to study in Venezuela. She sent me the form and encouraged me to apply. At first, I didn’t want to, my life was already set in Honduras. But, sometimes opportunities arise and we don’t understand what life wants for us. So, I filled out the forms with the help of the organization’s secretary Maria. Two weeks later, I received a call saying I had been pre-selected for the scholarships to Venezuela and needed to complete an interview. It took some more encouragement from Miriam but I went to my interview in Tegucigalpa.
Exactly two weeks later, they called me to offer me the scholarship to Venezuela. I had to leave Honduras in less than three weeks. Miriam’s presence in my life was crucial. I didn’t see the future but perhaps she did. I am eternally grateful to her and the organization.
JC: You arrived to Venezuela just one month before the coup in Honduras. Tell me about what happened during the coup?
TA: When we arrived to Venezuela, the people at the ELAM received us with open arms and little by little we felt at home with family. When the coup happened in Honduras, the coup government began to attack Venezuela and withdrew from all agreements with Venezuela. As Honduran students, we were nervous about what would happen to our status without the ALBA. But, Comandante Chavez and the Venezuelan people embraced us, they extended us their hand and said we could continue studying. While Honduras stopped receiving support from Venezuela, we continued in Venezuela with our Fundayacucho scholarships. We continued to develop our consciousness politically as well as scientifically thanks to the Bolivarian Revolution.
Unlike other “traditional” medical students we relate with our patients from the very beginning.
JC: Can you speak about your experiences and process in Venezuela? Your studies?
TA: After my first year adapting to Venezuela and learning the basics in medical sciences, all 300 students were assigned to different locations across the country. At first I was sent to Anzoategui but shortly afterward, I was transferred to Bolivar, Venezuela’s largest state. There I began to study medicine under Cuban doctors and went on routine check-ups. Unlike other “traditional” medical students we relate with our patients from the very beginning. From the first moment we begin our studies we have contact with patients conducting follow-ups and learning from our professors’ examples.
That same year, I also fell in love and became pregnant. I was only 23 years old. I was afraid especially given that I was a student outside of the ALBA agreement. At one point I thought, this is it for Tesalia Arzu Pastor. But, I found strength and courage where there was none and I decided to confront my situation and speak with authorities from the ELAM, my professors, Fundayacucho Scholarship Fund, Ofraneh and my family.
JC: What happened with you spoke with representatives at the ELAM?
TA: When I spoke with Director Doctor Sandra Moreno, I told her that I wasn’t ready to go back to Honduras. My family hadn’t rejected me, nor had my organization but, I came to Venezuela on a mission to become a doctor and I was determined not to return to Honduras without my title. Dr. Moreno supported me throughout the process and helped to guarantee I could continue my studies. If it weren’t for Dr. Moreno I am not sure if I would have finished my studies.
Thankfully I had access to Cuban and Venezuelan doctors as well as medicine and was able to take care of my pregnancy successfully. At three months, I already chose my baby’s name. For a girl, Jabnia and for a boy, Hugo Fidel. During my pregnancy, I never stopped attending class, I continued my medical rotations and all my other work.
On October 16, 2011 at 6:39 pm, I remember it being a Sunday, my daughter Jabnia was born. Now I was a mother, student and a woman. She marked my life in Venezuela. When she was born I was starting my third year. If I had been studying elsewhere, I would not have been able to continue but, in revolution, I did. The Bolivarian Revolution reinvindicated the rights of Venezuelan women but for Latin [American] women as well. My professors and Dr. Moreno helped me in every way possible. And Jabnia always collaborated with me, she slept at night and never caused a fuss. She learned to play with stethoscopes and notebooks and she came with me on rotations. She is my comrade and my friend.
In 2013, I decided to take Jabnia with me to Honduras. For two years she was with me but now, as I reached my fourth year of studies, I had to leave her with my family. I prayed to God that she be protected and cared for because I had to continue to achieve this dream that wasn’t only mine or the organization’s or the Garifuna people’s dream but now hers as well.
I returned to Venezuela without Jabnia and transferred from Upata, Bolivar to Caracas to continue my medical and political formation. I spoke with Dr. Moreno again who helped me transition to being in Venezuela without my daughter. She organized me into marches, presentations, all kinds of activities.
And little by little the time went by until today. Now, I have finished my classes and along with my other classmates am waiting for graduation. I can now say, mission accomplished Comandante Chavez. Mission accomplished to my Garifuna people.
JC: What are your plans once you’ve finished studying here in Venezuela?
TA: In 2009 I made a promise to return to Honduras with a different kind of medicine. We are doctors trained in prevention and promotion. In my country people’s health is uncared for. If you prevent disease you do not need to be cured. If you educate people about their illnesses, you can avoid complications. Some authorities in my country try to minimize our field but the education we have received from the Cuban people is excellent.
I want to return to Honduras and serve as a community based doctor. However, right now we are facing a complicated diplomatic situation which makes practicing medicine in my country difficult. Honduras is not the only place facing these challenges. There are certain universities that do not want to recognize our titles. I came to Venezuela to study and I want to return to Honduras, return and walk with my people and let them know they have their doctor and that they can count on me. I won’t swindle them or charge them for a consultation.
I don’t dream about practicing medicine in big hospitals... I dream of working in Ciriboya, Limon, Plaplaya, Vallecito. Vallecito is one of our rescued ancestral lands and the Garifuna people need their doctor there.
It isn’t fair that due to political issues, we cannot return to our country to practice medicine. We left Honduras to study because in our country there weren’t any opportunities. They [Honduran authorities] have no reason to reject us just because Venezuela opened its doors to us. They need to stop denying health to my people.
I will continue to struggle alongside my organization for the revindication of the Garifuna people and other marginalized people in my country. I don’t dream about practicing medicine in big hospitals in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula or La Ceiba. I dream of working in Ciriboya, Limon, Plaplaya, Vallecito. Vallecito is one of our rescued ancestral lands and the Garifuna people need their doctor there.
I had to come to Venezuela as an immigrant, I had to sacrifice raising my daughter to achieve this dream. I hope the competent authorities allow us to practice in our country and if not, we will fight until we win. As Comandante Chavez said, there are a lot of people there and a lot of people need this service. We will fight until we win.