Wilfredo Cancio Isla (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Cuban medical brigades stationed in Venezuela are witnessing considerable reductions in personnel as a result of one of Havana’s current priorities: Brazil’s Mas Medicos (“More Doctors”) program, which has already hired over 11,000 thousand physicians from the island.
The growing withdrawal of Cuban medical personnel from Venezuela has become especially evident since the close of last year, when hundreds of doctors were recalled by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) and reassigned to contingents deployed to render services in remote settlements and rural areas in Brazil.
This strategy has prompted concerns and dissatisfaction among Cuban health professionals still working in Venezuela, increasingly overworked and paid lower wages than their colleagues who accept work in neighboring Brazil.
“The fact is that Brazil requested a large number of doctors for its health program, and, in order to meet the request, Cuba has had to resort to the Cuban medical doctors who were already working here,” a Cuban medical professional stationed in Venezuela told Diario de las Americas. “They promised us they would send backup, but we don’t know when and, for the time being, they’re making us work like mad.”
More Work and Sacrifice
The source complained their on duty night shifts are now every three days and that many doctors have had to assume teaching responsibilities at universities set up in Venezuela in response to the deficit in teachers.
“I’m one of two Cuban doctors now responsible for 20 doctor’s offices in the area,” the doctor added, choosing to remain anonymous. “We’re yanking our hair out. It’s a huge sacrifice and it isn’t worth our efforts.”
No official statistics on the number of Cuban medical professionals who have left Venezuela since November of last year are known, but the members of the internationalist mission claim over two thousand doctors have been relocated.
Doctors for Brazil’s healthcare program were recruited directly from the teams of Comprehensive General Medicine professionals stationed in Venezuela. The recruits were urgently flown to Havana for a 2-month crash training course which included Portuguese lessons as part of their preparation for the Mas Medicos program impelled by Dilma Rousseff’s government.
This week, an additional 4,000 Cuban medical doctors will travel to Brazil to join the nearly 7,400 professionals already working in municipalities in the country’s interior, indigenous settlements and areas located at the periphery of large cities.
Good News in Brazil
In recent days, Cuban medical professionals working in Brazil received a bit of good news: the Brazilian government has reached an agreement with Cuban authorities and will increase their salaries to US $1,245 as of this month. It is a considerable increase from the US $ 400 a month they had been receiving until February. The actual wage increase is of US $245. The remaining US $600, which had till then been deposited in an account in Cuba, will now be paid directly to the doctors in Brazil.
Payments for Cuban medical personnel are made under an agreement signed by the Brazilian Ministry of Public Health, the Pan-American Health Organization (OPS) and Cuba’s Comercializadora de Servicios Medicos Cubanos S.A. (“Cuban Medical Services Company”). A total of US $ 4,200 a month is paid for each Cuban doctor.
Despite the controversy surrounding the salaries of Cuban doctors in Brazil stirred up by the desertion of Dr. Ramona Matos Rodriguez this past February, the amount paid these medical professionals is far higher than that received by doctors working in Venezuela.
Cuban medical doctors stationed in Venezuela currently receive a monthly salary of 3,000 bolivars, the equivalent of US $ 35. The Cuban government also deposits between 200 and 225 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in an account they can access only after fulfilling their contracts.
Waiting for a Raise
Following complaints over the limited remuneration and the high costs of living in Venezuela, Cuban authorities promised a 100 CUC raise as of February, but the increase has not yet become effective.
“People are killing themselves here and what they pay is dreadful,” a Cuban medical doctor working in Venezuela’s state of Bolivar said. “A two-year contract isn’t enough to save up any money, let alone to buy a car or an apartment, what with the prices we’re seeing in Cuba today.”
A number of doctors approached concurred that services offered at Venezuela’s Comprehensive Diagnostic Centers (CDI) will suffer from the loss of personnel.
Havana’s official discourse regarding medical brigades in Venezuela remains the same:
“Cuban medical workers in Venezuela will continue to fulfill their duties and to share in the struggle of the heroic people of Venezuela, no matter the circumstances,” Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez stated during an interview in Caracas.
Cuban authorities, however, are aware of the problem and have already implemented emergency measures to alleviate the deficit of physicians in the South American country.
In January, the provincial heads of Cuba’s medical mission in Venezuela were called to a meeting and read a new provision that authorizes some medical doctors who deserted to cover vacancies in Venezuela’s cooperation program.
“They were instructed to contact people who left the mission but who have been unable to travel to the United States and haven’t made aggressive statements against the Cuban government,” a CDI official said, choosing to remain anonymous. “The matter had been under discussion for months and I didn’t think it possible they would take those people back, but that’s what they have instructed.”
The measure applies to Cuban doctors who married in order to remain in Venezuela or left the mission, who could be reincorporated following an interview aimed at verifying that “they are honest people, that they don’t have any political problems and aren’t opponents of Maduro’s government,” the source revealed.
Thousands of Cuban medical doctors have deserted from international cooperation missions, chiefly in Venezuela, under a special US government program launched in 2006.
Currently, there are over 38,000 Cuban medical doctors, dentists and health technicians working in 66 countries around the world. Most of these health professionals – around 35,000 – were concentrated in Venezuela until the close of 2013.
Picking Up the Pace
The high demand for medical services abroad has forced the Cuban government to quickly broaden medical training programs at home.
Though general higher education enrollment figures evince a downward trend since the 2007-2008 school year, enrollment in medical sciences programs remains steady at the 13 universities and three independent faculties around the country.
The total number of students enrolled in Cuba’s 6-year medical studies program is upwards of 47,676, of which 37,302 are Cuban. Last school year, some 12,905 new students enrolled in the medical sciences program, roughly 31 percent of all university programs offered in the country.
This week, the Cuban Ministry of Higher Education announced that an additional 7,000 vacancies will be made available next school year, chiefly in the medical sciences program.
“Even with so many of our physicians working abroad, we continue to have one of the highest doctor-per-inhabitant ratio in the world,” Cuban Minister of Public Health Roberto Morales Ojeda proudly stated during a recent address before Cuba’s Council of Ministers.