Cuban docs fighting COVID-19 around world, defying US
For two years, the Trump administration has been trying to stamp out one of Cuba’s signature programmes – state-employed medical workers treating patients around the globe in a show of soft power that also earns billions in badly needed hard currency.
Labelling the doctors and nurses as both exploited workers and agents of communist indoctrination, the US has notched a series of victories as Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia sent home thousands after leftist governments allied with Havana were replaced with ones friendlier to Washington.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought a reversal of fortune for Cuban medical diplomacy, as doctors have flown off on new missions to battle COVID-19 in at least 14 countries, including Italy and Jamaica.
The Trump administration has sought to cut off income to Havana as part of a long-term tightening of sanctions. And it continues to discourage countries from contracting Cuban medical workers despite the pandemic, arguing that their pay and conditions fall short of industry standards.
“The government of #Cuba keeps most of the salary its doctors and nurses earn while serving in its international medical missions while exposing them to egregious labor conditions,” the State Department said on Twitter last week. “Host countries seeking Cuba’s help for #COVID-19 should scrutinise agreements and end labor abuses.”
Cuba currently has about 37,000 medical workers in 67 countries, most in long-standing missions. Some doctors have been sent as part of free aid missions, but many countries pay the government directly for their services. In some other cases, international health bodies have paid.
The most recent deployments of at least 593 doctors from the Henry Reeve Brigade have also been to Suriname, Dominica, Belize, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis, Venezuela and Nicaragua, some of them reinforcing existing medical missions.
All have been billed as tied to the coronavirus epidemic, even though some of the countries have few confirmed cases so far. None of the agreements or financial terms have been made public.
Havana has said it receives about US$6 billion a year from the export of public services, and medical services make up most of that.
When Brazil expelled Cuban doctors in 2018, a few details emerged including that the country had been paying US$3,100 per month for each doctor with 70 per cent of that going into the pockets of the Cuban government.
Doctors typically make less than US$100 per month working on the island, so doing an overseas mission means a significant pay hike even if those salaries remain low by international standards.
Cuban officials have been proudly posting videos of doctors being applauded as they arrive to begin work, and blasting the Trump administration for its criticisms.
“Shame on you. Instead of attacking Cuba and its committed doctors, you should be caring about the thousands of sick Americans who are suffering due to the scandalous neglect of your government and the inability of your failed health system to care for them,” Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s ambassador to Canada, tweeted.
Cuba has a relatively high number of medical workers per capita. Officials say there are currently about 90,000 in the country of 11 million.