(Photo: Office of the President and Vice President)

In late February, Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez participated in a cultural exchange in Havana, Cuba to learn about the country’s health care system and how a similar model can be used for the Navajo Nation.

A total of 17 people accompanied Nez, including community health workers of the Gallup, New Mexico organization Community Outreach Patient Empowerment (COPE).

The week-long trip was sponsored by the Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC) organization. It focused on learning about the current Cuban national health care system by visiting clinics, attending lectures, and visiting community health programs.

During the trip, Nez and other participants noted how factors such as the traditional Cuban diet and community farming impacted the country’s health.

“There are very few health issues,” Nez said in a press release. “Cubans eat a steady diet of rice and beans, which is farmed throughout their communities, in addition to medicinal plants.”

The Cuban health care system was established in 1959, just months after rebels declared a victory in the Cuban Revolution. The country adopted a preventive health care model, which focuses on disease prevention rather than disease treatment, and was praised by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2014 despite impacts from a 55-year trade embargo. Cuba, for example, has an infant mortality rate lower than the U.S. and an average life expectancy of 78, in the same ranking as more developed nations.

As part of the exchange, Nez and other participants discussed how to implement similar methods for the Navajo Nation. These initial ideas included assisting Navajo medical students enroll in Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine and developing walking trails in Navajo communities to encourage engagement and exercise.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of the cultural exchange included the similarities Nez found between the Navajo and Cuban cultures.

“The most gratifying part of the exchange came from direct contact with Cubans and hearing their perspectives on caring for their land and one another,” Nez said. He also said, “Cubans are the embodiment of resilience through a lasting heritage and culture, very much like our Navajo Nation.”