Brain Drain or Brain Squander?

Dariela Aquique

In Cuba you will find highly trained specialists in many fields working as taxi drivers or waiting on tables.

HAVANA TIMES — Much has been said throughout all periods of history about how the major economic powers have promoted the so-called “brain drain” from less developed countries.

Of course the wealthiest nations have always managed to plunder the resources of the poorest, and human capital has not been an exception to this rule.

But in this specific case, other factors come into play, namely that this supposed theft (which isn’t so much theft) is achieved with the consent of the person whose intellect is being stolen.

These brain drains are always consensual: those who have economic capital make offers and those who have intellectual capital respond.

Of course it’s not very ethical to take advantage of the needs of others, but those are the laws of the concrete jungles. For centuries, prominent figures of science, literature and the arts have gone to the great metropolises, for whatever reasons.

But a phenomenon is occurring in Cuba now that has some bearing on this. Though looked at from another perspective, it’s what I call “brain squander.” Many professionals in the country do not exercise their careers so as to pursue other jobs that are better paid.

I have a close friend who is a biologist, having graduated with honors for being exceptional in her field. She finished school just five years ago and was well recognized during her initial period of job training. She was then relocated to another workplace and began studying for her master’s degree, which was really exciting.

But it turns out that in the last year she has felt that she wasn’t doing anything really important. What’s worse is that she didn’t do anything edifying as an expert. She was still receiving a minimum salary, which wasn’t enough to cover her basic needs and those of her newborn child.

To make matters worse, her boss didn’t allow her to go to Havana to defend her master’s thesis. He argued that the content of her research wasn’t relevant to her job and nor was working on it included on her list of work responsibilities.

My friend — who by then was extremely frustrated — decided to quit her job. Now she’s making cakes and pastries for private restaurants and other individual’s orders. She says it’s going well; she now makes in one week what would have taken her two or three months to earn in her professional position.

My friend has a brain that wasn’t robbed by the capitalists. It’s a brain that was squandered here in this country.

Last week I went to have lunch in a private restaurant, one that had an unbeatable menu, moderate prices and excellent service. I was invited by two ex-actress friends of mine who now live in Spain.

The owner of the place is very charismatic, and after eating he joined us to talk and have a few beers. In that conversation I learned that he was an ophthalmologist, specializing in pediatrics, but he gave up his white coat and stethoscope for self-employment in food services.

He says that as a doctor he couldn’t make ends meet. The same is true with many sociologists I know who are waiters in hotels and engineers who sell snacks on the street.

In short, I know of many brains that haven’t been exactly stolen, but they have been squandered by real-life circumstances and personal choices.

11 thoughts on “Brain Drain or Brain Squander?

  • In common with capitalists everywhere, ‘Moses’ abhors “forbearance”. Or does he? The hucksters, of the world for obvious reasons would have you take the forbearance wraps off when it comes to consumer goods they want to sell – laptops, “suburban climate-controlled homes”, “fully-stocked refrigerators” and a “car in the garage”. But when it comes to decent health care or education, for example, forbearance is invoked. “We can’t afford it,” is cried, ignoring how countries like Cuba manages to have it. The forbearance of Americans when it comes to waiting for essential services the rest of the world takes for granted is truly remarkable. It is also appalling.

  • Nice try Luis but that’s incorrect. According to a recent study ( the higher the national education coefficient, the lower the unemployment and in the case of Cuba, underemployment. In other words, the better educated a country is overall, the more likely doctors work as doctors and engineers as engineers. In poorly-educated countries, a college degree may not be enough to take you off the farm because society as a whole is lacking the infrastructure to fully employ every engineer or doctor or lawyer that it produces. That is too say, pay an adequate salary, provide adecuate working conditions, etc. Cuba is, not surprisingly, an anomaly to the norm.

  • Of all jobs created last year in my country only 6% were of collage graduates. I myself am an example of a ‘squandered brain’. Since Cuba’s offers larger access to higher education, it’s more likely to suffer this kind of problem.

  • I agree with everything you say here, Michael.

    With regard to single-payer in the US, I’ve come to believe that a movement for an HRA (Healthcare Rights Amendment–to the US Constitution) is our only hope for getting it.

    Depending on legislators, as shown by recent history, will always be diverted within the Democratic Party. Let’s make an HRA movement!

  • Lawrence, forbearance is a word more often used by people using their laptops from the comforts of their cozy suburban climate-controlled homes. It also helps to have a fully-stocked refrigerator and a decent car in the garage. In your case, I will throw in a tidy pension and bank account. It is much harder to forbear the ridiculous when you make 10 bucks a month and a pair of shoes for your 9-year old daughter costs $30.

  • Given the utter dysfunctionality of our health care “system” here in the U.S., why isn’t Cuba doing more to promote medical tourism for American citizens? Then, talented professionals from Cuba’s medical system wouldn’t have to become cab drivers, waiters, chefs and paladar owners, for example, but could remain in their fields. Of course only a minority of Americans would have the shrewdness, or daring, to do this, but given the limited alternatives they have here, more and more would opt to travel to Cuba for medical treatment. I have a close friend who travelled all the way to Bangkok, Thailand, to have a melanoma removed from the skin of his left arm. The operation, and stay, at Bumrumgrad Hospital, cost less than $5,000. Here in the States, he would have been economically wiped out. (He was a cab driver, without medical insurance.) This was almost ten years ago, so the operation was a success.) Elsewhere, it was reported that for a three day stay in a hospital the patient had to pay more than $30,000! (He also was without medical insurance.) Even if you are lucky enough to have medical insurance, many policies have a very high “deductable,” and you can only accept “in plan” doctors, who are often mediocre practititoners. It looks like the U.S.A. will never come up with a single-payer system, as is the case in Western Europe and much of the rest of the world. Even with “Obamacare” the system is controlled by the insurance companies and their bean-counters, rather than the medical professionals. If Cuba were to really expand this field, they wouldn’t have to send so many doctors abroad to earn hard currency. Also, part of the divisa earned in Cuba could be plowed back into the system to improve facilities and equipment. And most of all, doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical professionals could begin to be paid what they’re worth and what they ought to be earning.

  • Dariela writes about squandered, or wasted brains without, unfortunately, focusing on the underlying problem – a two-tier economic class is evolving in Cuba where taxi drivers and others with access to CUC earnings make more than professions paid at government rates. Focused on wasted opportunities, she doesn’t make the mistake ‘Moses’ does, however, with his capitalist perspective, of thinking that some people – someone who has “improved the lives of at least 2,000 of his countrymen” – should be paid more than others.

    How do we know what is really being squandered? Dariela cites a biologist who “felt that she wasn’t doing anything really important” and who “didn’t do anything edifying as an expert” who is now doing well, “making cakes and pastries for private restaurants and other individual’s orders.” There are many people in Canada who get degrees and don’t use them – more now with the economic downturn than before who can’t find employment in their field. I’m from the old school that views higher education as a mechanism to primarily teach you to think, not to train you to perform in a profession. So for me, schooling is never squandered. In Canada, students are now emerging from school with massive debts to pay off their education. In this sense, they may be viewed as having squandered their money, something Cubans are not faced with.

    Dariela writes about an “ophthalmologist, specializing in paediatrics”, who “gave up his white coat and stethoscope for self-employment in food services,” and cites “many sociologists … who are waiters in hotels and engineers who sell snacks on the street.” We have no way of knowing if their talents are being squandered but Dariela is getting down to the crux of the problem. Everyone should be paid a living wage that will allow them to work in the profession of their choice if there is a demand for their services.

    A two-tier economic system, put in place to come to terms with individuals who are more demanding of change, contains elements that are as destructive for the common good as capitalism. Hopefully, both the government and the Cuban people view this as a temporary measure and that the former will treat this as something that urgently needs addressing whilst the latter will recognise the wisdom of forbearance, even whilst never ceasing to lobby for change.

  • Yes, Moses, there is something very wrong with it. And if the PCC should ever wake up and implement a modern cooperative, state co-ownership form of socialism, those sorts of things would soon disappear.

    Of course, if a frog had wings . . .

  • Grady, calm down. This blog is called Havana Times. As such, it is directed at topics concerning Cuba. If you wish to read comments about human trafficking in India, or CEO salaries in the US, go to another blog. Everything written in this post is true and is a real issue that needs to be addressed in Cuba regardless of the other problems facing the world. My best friend in Cuba is a former neurosurgeon who worked at Calixto Garcia hospital for 10 years. He estimates having saved or improved the lives of at least 2,000 of his countrymen. Yet, he never earned the equivalent of more than $35 in a month from his job. He requested to be sent on a medical brigade to Venezuela but was told no because he was unsuitable politically. He quit being a surgeon and now is a bartender at a popular Cabaret in Central Havana. He earns more selling mojitos to tourists in a week than he onced earned saving lives as a surgeon. Something is very wrong with that.

  • While you muckrake negative manifestations of state monopoly socialist Cuba, you have nothing to say about the 27 million women and children who are chattel and sexual slaves in the capitalist countries, or the hundreds of millions living in slum-dog conditions all over the capitalist world. Like any and every person in Cuba wishing to be a parasite on the people through a restoration of capitalism, you pick and chose what you wish to critique.

  • This is so true and it frustrates me to see the intellect of Cuba being squandered by the the “Old Guard”. This old guard as I call it installs it’s crony family and friends into very responsible positions for which they are not qualified. The result is extremely disturbing for the intellectual youth here in Cuba, in many cases they are working for persons of vastly inferior learning capabilities, whose sole purpose seems to be to establish who the boss is.
    This is holding this great nation in the clutch of those well connected. Cuba has the possibility to become the “Jewel of the Caribbean” but some of the old fundamentalism needs to be addressed. Why is our government involved in so many businesses when governing 11 million people is a big enough job?
    Free up our economy and the “Brain Drain” will stop. Give our youth more to dream about than getting to Miami

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