HAVANA — Mario Argueta bowed his head over a sheet of Braille and gently brushed his lips across the raised letters. With his Cuban teacher watching closely, the slight 21-year-old moved his mouth back and forth in patient repetition.
Argueta was learning to read. The former Salvadoran guerrilla fighter was blinded and lost both arms six years ago when the homemade grenade he was about to toss at government soldiers exploded prematurely.
Today, Argueta is one of 260 wounded combatants undergoing rehabilitation at Cuba's July 26th camp for members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Most of the Salvadoran war veterans are blind or amputee peasants, wounded in bomb attacks, army ambushes or--like Argueta--when their own rudimentary weapons turned against them.
Throughout the 11-year civil war, the Salvadoran government has accused Cuba of arming and training the leftist guerrillas--a charge the rebels and the Cuban government routinely deny. But the Cubans often have declared their "solidarity" with the guerrillas and point to the July 26th camp as one of the best examples of their support for such liberation movements.
The Salvadorans run the camp themselves, but the Cuban government provides food, facilities, teachers and medical care--from surgery to physical therapy. And although Cuba is undergoing its own economic crisis because of diminished Soviet backing and the collapse of the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe, the government has made no move to cut back its support for the July 26th camp, according to a U.N. relief worker who visits the installation.
The Cubans also support a community of Chilean exiles who fled the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, and school hundreds of Namibian, Mozambican and Nicaraguan students. But this is their only rehabilitation camp and possibly the only one of its kind in the world.
Jean-Francois Durieux, a representative in Mexico of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, said he knows of no other camp for disabled rebels.
One of the most impressive features of the July 26th camp is its prosthetics workshop, set up with the technical and organizational help of the Los Angeles-based Medical Aid for El Salvador. Two years ago, Medical Aid began to train the Salvadorans in the basics of making their own artificial limbs.
"Many didn't know how to read and write, but little by little they learned to read and learned anatomy," said Mario Velasquez of Medical Aid.
At the time, the Salvadorans were using the Cubans' dated equipment from the Soviet Union. Because of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Medical Aid is unable to provide economic assistance to the camp. So last year, a Frankfurt, Germany-based relief agency, Medico Internacional, donated $70,000 worth of machinery to make prosthetic legs and arms in the camp. In August, Medical Aid brought two professors from UCLA's Prosthetics Education Program for 10 days to teach the Salvadorans to cast and finish artificial arms and legs.
"I taught the course as a humanitarian gesture," said one of the teachers, who asked not to be identified. He also has taught courses in Mexico, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries, but fears reprisals from the U.S. government for helping Salvadorans in Cuba. "Once these guys become amputees, as far as I'm concerned they are disabled civilians," the American teacher said. "We are looking to the future. Sometime there will be peace in El Salvador and there will be a huge number of amputees on both sides. The other side (government soldiers) gets help . . . in El Salvador. Between the two efforts, the country should have a foundation in prosthetics," he added.
In El Salvador, government soldiers in wheelchairs are a common sight. The wounded veterans, many of whom lost limbs to rebel land mines, congregate in San Salvador's Cuscatlan Park, across from the military hospital. They are treated by the Armed Forces Center for Professional Rehabilitation, which receives aid from the U.S. government and American relief agencies, according to an army spokesman. The army's center provides artificial limbs and therapy as well as job training.
Many of the wounded guerrillas of July 26th want to go back to El Salvador as civilians, but they fear being killed. Last month, the former combatants sent a letter to President Alfredo Cristiani asking him to negotiate their safe return, but they have not yet received a response.
"In the letter, we tried to make the point that we have a right, as do all Salvadorans, to live in our country," said Arnulfo Ramirez, one of the nearly 200 wounded men who signed the letter.
The letter was sent through the U.N. refugee commission, which would help to resettle the former combatants if the government agrees to their repatriation.