Informacion economica sobre Cuba

Cuba injects doctor diplomacy into Africa

Oil-pumping African nations pay hefty sums to staff their hospitals with

thousands of Cuban doctors, with most of the money going to the Cuban


Nick MiroffJune 10, 2012 00:00

HAVANA, Cuba — Africa is a growth market for the world's best-known

Cuban brand after Havana Club rum and Cohiba cigars.

That would be Cuba Rx, also known as Havana's doctor diplomacy.

A generation ago, Fidel Castro sent Cuban soldiers to intervene in

African civil conflicts and fight the Cold War against US proxies. Now,

Cuba's doctors are fanning out across the continent as the island

expands its role in administering medical services to some of the

world's most ailing countries.

For Cuba the effort is good philanthropy, good diplomacy and, in some

cases, good business. The Cuban missionaries are part of a widening

global medical outreach that has boosted Havana's ties around the world

and earned billions in hard currency for the cash-strapped Castro


The largest contingent of Cuban doctors working abroad remains in

Venezuela, Cuba's closest ally, where they have helped boost support for

Hugo Chavez's government by staffing clinics in rural areas and rough

neighborhoods where health services are scarce.

In turn, the Venezuelan government sends Cuba billions in cash as well

as critical supplies of oil. But Chavez is facing re-election in October

as well as an uncertain recovery from an aggressive and

still-undisclosed form of abdominal cancer.

If a leadership change in Venezuela were to cool relations with Cuba,

thousands of Cuban doctors could be reassigned elsewhere — many to

Africa, where fast-growing economies and rising commodity prices have

left some governments flush with cash yet lacking in health care


Some 5,500 Cubans are already working in 35 of Africa's 54 countries,

Cuban Foreign Ministry official Marcos Rodriguez told reporters this

week at a press conference in Havana.

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Of those, 3,000 are health professionals, and 2,000 are doctors, he said.

"We have blood ties with Africa," the deputy minister said.

Some 1.3 million African slaves were brought to Cuba during the island's

colonial period, Rodriguez said, and 2,289 Cubans died fighting in

Angola between 1975 and 1990, where some 300,000 Cuban served.

"Cuba believes that it has a historic debt to Africa that must be

repaid," he said.

Then again, Cuba's debt repayment is not an entirely one-way affair.

While Cuba sends physicians to Africa's poorest countries and grants

scholarships for their students to study medicine on the island, it does

a brisk business with more prosperous countries on the continent —

especially those that are rich with oil and poor in health professionals.

Petroleum-pumping Africa nations such as Algeria and Angola are paying

hefty sums to staff their hospitals with Cuban doctors, with most of the

money going to the Cuban government.

For instance, the Angolan government pays Cuba about $5,000 a month for

each doctor the island sends, according to a source with knowledge of

the arrangement. The Cuban doctor receives a $500 share.

It's a tiny cut, but the amount is still about 10 times what Cuban

doctors can earn back home. The Castro government also rewards

physicians who complete medical "missions" with other perks — like the

ability to buy a used car from the state.

The specific details of each arrangement between Cuba and the countries

that receive its doctors and other professionals are not public. But the

programs seem to work along three basic channels: providing medical help

free to poor countries that can't pay, charging countries that can pay,

and training medical professionals at universities back in Cuba.

This sliding-scale policy has won Cuba friends around the world, as

students from more than 100 countries have been trained at the island's

medical programs. According to a report this week in the Toronto Star,

nearly 20,000 foreign students are currently receiving medical training

in Cuba — including 116 Americans on scholarship.

But not all foreign students are studying in Cuba for free. When

officials in Ghana announced recently they had reached a deal with the

Castro government to train 250 doctors over a six-year period, the

arrangement was criticized by Ghanan officials who argued the money

would be better spent boosting education doctors back home.

Many African doctors who train abroad opt to work in foreign countries

where salaries are higher, and the Cuba's training urges them to serve

their communities back home.

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Africa was one of the first places

Cuba's health missionaries went when a small medical brigade arrived in

Algeria following the country's anti-colonial fight against France.

Cuban medical personnel also accompanied Cuban soldiers sent to aid

leftist allies in Angola, Namibia and elsewhere.

And the ideological battle between the US and Cuba is still playing out

on African soil. A program created by the Bush administration in 2006

creates special visas for Cuban medical personnel who wish to defect

from their missions abroad.

About 800 doctors have done so to date, drawing fierce criticism from

the Castro government, which says the US visa program deprives poor

countries of desperately needed medical care.

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