HAVANA TIMES —This past weekend, Brazil welcomed the first 400 of a contingent of 4,000 Cuban medical doctors, hired to provide health services to populations living in the remotest and poorest areas of the Latin American giant.
Brazil’s doctors association opposes the measure, but the administration of Dilma Rouseff considers it a matter of public interest and a social issue of the highest priority.
Sectors of the country’s opposition accuse Brasilia and Havana of subjecting Cuban doctors to “slave labor”, pointing to the fact the Cuban government takes a considerable part of their earnings.
In any event, a number of volunteers have reported that salaries will be higher than in other missions. It is said they will be around US $1,600 a month, a considerable sum of money in a country where meeting a family’s basic needs is estimated at US $100.
The claim that these contracts subject Cuban health professionals to slave-like work conditions will be difficult to defend indeed, considering that the entire operation has been approved by the UN’s Pan-American Health Organization and the fact that, since January of this year, Cuba has been allowing medical doctors to travel abroad with their families and to work in whatever clinic they choose.
Brazil’s Federal Medical Council declared that the arrival of Cuba’s medical brigades “exposes the health of the population to danger.” However, a mere thousand of Brazil’s medical professionals agreed to work in some of the hundreds of rural areas that have never seen a doctor. To claim that the sick people living in these regions would be better off without medical services than under the care of Cuba’s physicians seems like an absurd thing to say.
Brazil’s association of medical doctors affirms that their colleagues from the island lack the needed training. However, Cuba’s medical brigade is made up of “all-roaders” willing to settle in the most inhospitable areas, capable of working with a minimum of resources, trained to organize preventive health campaigns and very experienced in clinical diagnoses – an indispensable skill in places lacking in equipment and laboratories.
Different medical associations around Latin America began to object to these contracts as soon as Cuba got in the way of their corporate interests by sending its first health brigades to a number of countries in the region.
Tensions were exacerbated by the creation of Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), an institution which provides free medical training to thousands of young people from the region, so they may return to their communities as fully qualified professionals.
Operacion Milagro (“Operation Miracle”), which gave thousands of people in the region back their sight without charging them a cent and thus deprived ophthalmologists, who charged US $2,000 for a 15-minute surgical procedure, of a pretty penny, caused similar tensions.
In many countries around the region, medical associations go out of their way to prevent those who graduate from Cuban medical schools from validating their degrees. Little by little, however, they have had to step aside. During his visit to Cuba, Uruguayan President Pepe Mujica told us that most Cuban medical degrees are already recognized in his country. There is still some resistance in a number of specialties, the ones in which doctors make the most money (the most expensive for patients), he added somewhat bitterly.
Brazil’s medical associations and opposition accuse President Rouseff of hiring Cuban medical brigades because of ideological reasons. The Ministry of Health replies that most of the island’s health professionals will work in Brazil’s north and north-eastern regions, precisely in those places where no Brazilian or foreign doctors who qualified to take part in the program were willing to practice, despite salaries offered of around US $13,500 a month.
In fact, beyond any possible political sympathies, the Brazilian government really had no choice – its plans of extending medical coverage to all corners of the country require 54 thousand doctors. This week, Brazil welcomed 244 professionals from Portugal, Spain, Argentina and Uruguay, but these opted to work only in cities.
Cuba is the only country capable of providing Brazil, with very short notice, a contingent of thousands of medical doctors willing to work in the neediest areas. This is a luxury it can afford because it has nearly 80 doctors – one per every 150 inhabitants, the highest ratio is the world.
(*) Read Fernando Ravsberg’s blog in Spanish.