HAVANA TIMES — For years, the Cuban State has been preaching that so-called “internationalist missions” are a means of offering other nations “selfless aid.” Many of us know, however, that something else hides behind this philanthropist spiel, that, over time, this fraternal assistance has become one of the country’s main source of revenues.
The sending of medical, sports, education, cultural and other professionals to other nations is formalized through the signing of agreements with the receiving countries. This personnel isn’t offered these countries free of charge – the Cuban government charges in hard currency. According to some reports, by 2009 the main source of hard currency revenues had already become the export of these services to other countries, surpassing international tourism.
The Cuban government is paid the total monthly stipend agreed to for the services rendered by each professional abroad, while the family back in Cuba of this professional is paid 50 dollars a month and their salary in Cuban pesos. Only after fulfilling their contract, after their files have been officially sealed, can these professionals collect the money in their frozen accounts. Coupled with the stipend they have received during their stay abroad, the amount they collect is far less than what the State pockets.
If these professionals wish to stop working before the agreed term – be it for personal, health or other reasons – then that’s that.
Venezuela is one of the main receiving countries. Cuban professionals have been traveling to this country and working there for two or four years for more than a decade.
For Cuban professionals, working in Venezuela means earning a bit of money, with which they can later buy a house and/or some household appliances that they would never be able to afford with their Cuban salaries. It is also an opportunity to buy cheap trinkets to give to relatives and friends and sell to others to make a little extra cash.
They don’t really care that the government is exploiting them – it is the only way they and their families can get ahead.
Getting people work abroad became a business for officials at the Provincial Offices of the Ministry of Health, who would find jobs for friends and relatives and sell them to others. In the Cuban on-line classifieds page Revolico.com, I once came across an ad that read: “I’m a doctor. I’m offering 300 CUC for a mission abroad.”
From Venezuela, Cuban professionals were exporting all manner of utensils and essentials. Anything from luxury fridges to fine china was being shipped in containers (subject to preferential customs fees and lax weight restrictions). One fine day, however, these perks were taken away and those arriving from the sister nation of Venezuela were required to pay duties as much as everyone else.
The economic and social crisis that Venezuela has been facing since Chavez, exacerbated during Maduro’s presidency, makes it more difficult for Cuban professionals to purchase as many things as they could before. Though they always claim to be proud of their selfless efforts in front of the television cameras, in truth fewer and fewer professionals want to go work in Venezuela. They prefer Brazil or African countries where the pay is better.
To earn a bit more money and improve their quality of life, Cuban professionals are willing to face all kinds of risks, from violent deaths or accidents in remote areas, through contagion of deadly diseases to acts of sabotage.
More than a hundred Cuban medical doctors working in Venezuela’s Barrio Adentro (“Into the Neighborhood”) program have died since the program began in 2003. Though Cuban authorities insist this is not the case, in 2010 El Nacional published an article that reported on the deaths of 69 Cuban medical doctors in the country.
The fact is that, be it as a means of making money, buying household appliance or trinkets or finding a way to reach the United States, work abroad has been an option sought out by the island’s professionals that has nothing to do with the much-advertised humanitarian gesture.
Today, I heard a conversation between two medical doctors. One was saying to the other: “So here I am, pushing to get sent somewhere, except Venezuela, you can’t get anything out of that anymore. I prefer to go to Africa, Ebola and all.”
Just look at all that altruism.