Following the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) in Trinidad & Tobago, the Prime Minister of Tonga, Dr. The Honourable Feleti Vaka'uta Sevele made a short visit to Cuba from 1st to 4th December, 2009, accompanied by the Chief Secretary & Secretary to Cabinet, Mr. Busby Kautoke, and the Director Health, Dr. Siale ‘Akau'ola. Several Commonwealth leaders also visited Cuba before or after CHOGM, including the leaders of South Africa, Australia and Uganda.
The purpose of the visit of the Prime of Tonga to Cuba was to further strengthen diplomatic ties between Tonga and Cuba; visit the three Tongan students at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences; discuss possibility of more medical students in future; and to explore further areas of cooperation with Cuba.
This is not the first meeting between Tonga and Cuba. In 2000 at the negotiation of the new Cotonou Convention, following Tonga's support of Cuba's full membership of the ACP Group, the Cuba Government expressed their desire in establishing diplomatic relations with Tonga. Diplomatic relation was then established on 17th June 2002, and signed in Havana, Cuba by HRH Prince ‘Ulukalala Lavaka Ata, then Prime Minister& Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense, during his official visit to Cuba.
In 2008, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs & Defense, Hon. Sonatane T.T. Tupou attended the Cuba-South Pacific Islands Meeting from 16 to 18 September, 2008 in Cuba aimed at promoting political dialogue and to coordinate actions in topics of mutual interest; articulating effective mechanisms for South-South cooperation; and working on accrediting new Ambassadors from the Pacific Islands in Cuba.
The official visit to Cuba of the Hon. Prime Minister and his party included a wreath laying ceremony at the Monument of the Cuban National Hero, Jose Marti; official meetings with the First Vice President, Ministers and officials; visit to the Latin American School of Medical Sciences; visit to the boxing school at the Cuba Sports Institute; and some sightseeing tours.
Few hours were spent at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences to meet the Minister of Health and Dean of the School, followed by a joyful meeting with the three Tongan medical students at this School, namely:-
i)-Semisi ‘Aholelei, 20 years old of Sopu;
ii)-Losimani Latavao, 19 years old of Popua; and
iii)-Andrea Si'ulua Sesilia Kisina, 20 years old of Maufanga.
These students looked happy and healthy. They arrived in Cuba on 11th October, 2009. They reported that at first there were worries in their minds, but after a week or two they felt happy, safe and liked the place, after meeting the many medical foreign students, including students from Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru and the Solomon Islands. This medical school was opened in 1999 and is reported to be one of the biggest in the world, with 10, 000 to 12,000 students, from the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Asia, Pacific and some even come from the United States. Despite the US Embargo, about 90 North American students have been studying in Cuba since 2007.
The three Tongan students started by enrolling on the two year pre-medical studies on health sciences, chemistry, biology, maths, physics, as well as a 12 weeks intensive course in the Spanish Language. The medical program of study is divided into 12 semesters, with the first two years at the ELAM campus in Havana, before moving to one of the 21 other medical schools for 4 years, plus a one year rotating internship. Cuban medical training emphasizes community medicine, and hands-on internship.
All students studying at the Cuban medical schools are under scholarship of free education, free tuition, dormitory housing, three meals a day, text books for all courses, school uniform, basic toiletries, beddings, transport, and a small monthly stipend of 100 Cuban peso ,about US$4.
Cuba has medical scholarships available to Tonga which may go up to ten scholarships as from 2010. There are also available medical doctors, who can assist with delivery of health service in Tonga if required by Government. Other Pacific Islands, such as Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru and the Solomon Islands, have been making good use of this medical assistance from Cuba for several years.
Another visit of special interest to the Prime Minister and his party was the visit to one Sports Institute in Cuba, and spent time looking at the boxers in training. The Tongan delegation had the privilege of meeting well known 15 Cuban Olympic Gold medalists, in various sports. They also met here the famous super heavy weight, Alexis Rubalcaba, who was defeated by the Tongan hero Paea Wolfgram to win the Olympic Silver Medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.
Discussions were held with the Vice Minister for Sports and staff of this Sports Institute on possible program of cooperation between Cuba and Tonga on boxing, especially making available boxing coaches to assist with the development of boxing in Tonga.
Issued by: The PMO Website Bureau, Prime Minister's Office, P.O. Box 62, Nuku'alofa, Tonga.