Cuba’s Henry Reeve Medical Brigade has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But, who exactly is Henry Reeve?
henry reeve monument
Monument to Henry Reeve, Yaguaramas, Cuba. Photo: Christopher P Baker

Some 20 miles east of the “Bay of Pigs,” mid-way between Yaguaramas and Horquitas, a monument of gray Cuban marble stands amid a flat landscape farmed with sugarcane, cassava, and rice. Framed by low bushes and recently-planted Royal palms, the unassuming obelisk rises from a low-lying plinth inset with a bronze plaque dedicated to the 26-year-old American killed in combat here on August 4, 1876.

Across the road, a large billboard displays a profile of the young volunteer soldier who gave his life for the cause of Cuban independence, accompanied by the words: “Henry Reeve: Ejemplo de solidaridad e internacionalismo.”

“Never heard of him!,” says a New Yorker as he alights from the tour bus to snap a photo of one of Cuba’s more revered heroes.

Few Americans know who Reeve was. Yet his story has become synonymous with international solidarity in the 21st century.

Few Americans know who Reeve was. Yet his story has become synonymous with international solidarity in the 21st century.

This year, Cuba’s “Henry Reeve Brigade,” named in his honor, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize “in recognition of their magnificent solidarity and selflessness, saving thousands of lives by putting their own lives at risk,” according to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. The brigade—formally known as the International Contingent of Doctors Specialized in Disasters and Serious Epidemics “Henry Reeve”—is comprised of Cuban medical professionals deployed on missions of international solidarity (solidaridad e internacionalismo) in response to major health crises worldwide.

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Born in Brooklyn, New York, on April 4, 1850, to a middle-class Presbyterian family, Reeve grew up in a nation torn apart by the issue of slavery. When those tensions erupted in the American Civil War (1861-65), he participated as a young drummer boy for the Union Army.

Reeve was still only 18 when, in October, 1868, Cuba landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves in “La Grita de Yara” (Cry of Yara), launching the first independence war against Spain. Sensitized to the issues of slavery and liberty, Reeve—by now a bank bookkeeper—decided to give himself to the Cuban cause. He volunteered to fight, and on May 4, 1869, set sail from New York aboard the steamer Perrit alongside New York’s Cuban émigrés.

Henry Reeve billboard
Billboard honoring Henry Reeve, Yaguaramas, Cuba. Photo: Christopher P Baker

“Among the expeditionaries were the educated Confederate General [Thomas] Jordán and about a hundred young Americans, some belonging to wealthy families in New York and Brooklyn,” wrote Colonel Fernando Figueredo Socarrás in La Revolución de Yara (1902). “The most distinguished of these for his manners, for his education, and perhaps for his birth, was a young soldier who under the name of Henry Earl [Reeve] had enlisted in New York, and without the knowledge of his parents had landed on the beaches of Cuba to fight for their independence.”

On May 9, the Perrit anchored off the Península El Ramón, in eastern Cuba. But the Spanish had been alerted. On the morning of May 16, the expeditionaries were ambushed. Reeve was taken prisoner, promptly shot by a firing squad, and left for dead. Remarkably, he survived. Found by a unit of Cuba’s “ejército libertador” (liberation army), he was nursed back to health. 

the perrit landing in Cuba with henry reeve, later leading to naming the henry reeve brigade

Assigned to General Ignacio Agramonte y Loynáz’s Camagüey Cavalry Corps, the blonde, blue-eyed americano—nicknamed “el inglesito” (“the little Englishman”) by Agramonte—rose to the level of captain and served with distinction in more than 400 engagements. Memorably, on October 8, 1871, Reeve was at the forefront of Agramonte’s machete charge of 35 mambises (the nickname for the liberation army) that rescued Brigadier Julio Sanguily from vastly superior Spanish forces. He was also with Agramonte when the latter was killed in combat on May 11, 1873, at the Battle of Jimaguayû.

Within the past year, for example, 52 brigades and almost 4,000 medics have provided health services in 39 countries—from Andorra to the United Arab Emirates—to fight the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Like a cat with nine lives, Reeve survived numerous grave injuries, including being shot in the stomach. Then, on September 28, 1873, at the battle of Santa Cruz del Sur, a Spanish cannon severed one leg. Doctors fitted a metal-and-leather prosthesis: thereafter, Reeve fought while literally strapped to his saddle. After some six months convalescence, he was appointed to the rank of Brigadier General as head of the 1st Division of the Camagüey Cavalry Corps under General Máximo Gómez. 

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Reeve had served with the Mambises for seven years when on August 4th, 1876, Spanish forces annihilated his troop at Yaguaramas. His horse was shot from beneath him. Reeve was hit in the shoulder, groin, and chest. In a final act of defiance, the American hero raised his revolver and shot himself in the temple, giving his life for “solidarity and internationalism” at the age of 26. 

Reeve was far from the only American citizen to give himself in solidarity to the Cuban cause, but he is the standard bearer against whom all others are measured.

In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Fidel responded to the governor of Louisiana’s urgent plea for help by assembling a team of 1,586 medical professionals trained in disaster medicine and infectious disease containment. When President George W. Bush turned a deaf ear to the offer, Castro formalized Cuba’s existing humanitarian medical brigades and christened them in Reeve’s honor. 

“Undoubtedly, Bush’s silence reflected the attitudes of many wealthy Americans who would prefer to see their poor countrymen suffer and die rather than admit that Cuba had a disaster response capability superior to that of the United States,” wrote Don Fitz, author of Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution.

Fitz is certainly correct that Cuba’s international disaster response capability far outshines that of the United States.

“The Reeve Brigade is today recognized as the only international medical contingent providing a scientific and humanitarian response to the [COVID] pandemic on a global scale,” notes the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs—one of more than 20 international organizations that have nominated the Henry Reeve Brigade for the Nobel Peace Prize.

henry reeve brigade memorial stamp 1976
A stamp shows El Inglesito, Henry M. Reeve, Death Centenary, circa 1976

“Cuba is a special case,” adds Jose Luis Di Fabio, head of the World Health Organization’s Havana office. “The country has the ability to react very quickly because of the experience of the physicians and the political will to do so.”

Within the past year, for example, 52 brigades and almost 4,000 medics have provided health services in 39 countries—from Andorra to the United Arab Emirates—to fight the Covid-19 coronavirus.

“The work of Cuba’s doctors and nurses, especially their willingness to help others abroad, is extraordinary. Cuba is not a wealthy country, which makes what they’re doing even more remarkable,” says Sir Richard Branson in a blog post thanking the Henry Reeve Brigade for their efforts in response to the COVID crisis. “During the current pandemic, Cuba has sent medical teams all over the world, including to Spain, Italy and South Africa. In the Caribbean alone, they have deployed teams of doctors and nurses to the Turks and Caicos Islands, Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Belize, Jamaica, and Suriname.”

This response to the current crisis is only the latest in a long history of Cuba delivering humanitarian-medical-health aid to victims of epidemics and natural disasters in other countries. 

For example, rapid deployment teams served in Ukraine following the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. The most celebrated contribution was the three Cuban brigades that served in West Africa (2014-2016) in the fight against the deadly Ebola epidemic; the 461 doctors and nurses—chosen from a pool of 15,000 volunteers—comprised by far the largest international contingent (although President Obama’s response, coordinated through the U.S. military and Center for Disease Control was far more broad-based). Other brigades trained in disaster and epidemic response at Havana’s Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine served in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami; and during the past 15 years following floods in Belize, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Sierra Leone; hurricanes in Dominica, Fiji, Haiti, Mexico and Mozambique; plus earthquakes in Chile, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Kashmir (where Cuba sent more doctors and nurses than Pakistan), Nepal, Pakistan, Peru, and—in 2010—following the devastating quake in Haiti, where Cuba already had some 400 medical personnel serving long-term fighting cholera.  

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Cuban doctors have treated tens of thousands of people in Haiti alone thanks to a long-term commitment. In fact, most brigadistas—who are required to speak at least two languages—serve on a two-year contracted basis as community doctors abroad, rather than in the emergency-response brigades. 

Henry Reeve Brigade Cuba Doctors

By 2020, some 400,000 Cubans and fully one quarter of Cuba’s health professionals had worked in 164 nations and territories. Today, about 47,000 are concurrently active in 67 countries, providing care to millions of underprivileged and underserved populations, regardless of ideology and cultural background. 

It’s an altruistic commitment and contribution of which Henry Reeve would be proud.

Hopefully, the Henry Reeve Brigade will be deservedly honored with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If so, then the next time I pull up in a tour bus beside the monument near Yaguaramas, I hope to hear members of my group exclaim, “Wow! Is that the American after whom Cuba’s international medical brigades are named?”

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Christopher P. Baker is hailed by National Geographic as “One of the world’s leading authorities on Cuba travel and culture.” He has won numerous awards, including the Lowell Thomas Award in 2008 for Travel Journalist of the Year. Christopher has made Cuba his professional calling for three decades, and has published seven travel books about Cuba including the Moon Cuba and National Geographic Traveler Cuba guidebooks, his award-winning literary travelog “Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba,” plus his coffee-table book Cuba Classics: A Celebration of Vintage American Automobiles. His stories on Cuba have appeared in scores of publications, from BBC Travel and CNN Travel to National Geographic Traveler and even Penthouse. Chris has led more than 120 tours to Cuba for entities from the Children’s Cancer Foundation to National Geographic Expeditions and Santa Fe Photo Workshops, including on-going photography tours for Jim Cline Photo Tours and Lumaria Workshops. He has motorcycled through Cuba numerous times, and leads custom motorcycle tours for individuals and groups using BMWs and Harley-Davidsons. He promotes his work though his website: www.christopherpbaker.com. Fun fact: Christopher trips over himself in his attempts to dance salsa!

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