May Day in Cuba: The Doctors Out in Front

Fernando Ravsberg*

Health care workers led the way during this year’s May Day celebration. They represented all of the Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians working both on and off the island. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES, May 2 — This year’s May Day demonstration in Havana’s Revolution Square was led by a broad representation of health care workers, whose work abroad has turned into the principal source of income for the country.

Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, nurses and medical technicians annually bring in more foreign exchange than tourism and family remittances – the two sources that in the 1990s were the oxygen that allowed the country to withstand the brutal economic crisis.

The majority of the physicians work in Venezuela in “social missions” promoted by Hugo Chavez, but officials of Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health report that there’s cooperation in dozens of places in the Americas, Africa, Asia and even Europe.

Moreover, this trend seems to be progressively extending to other sectors, with Cuban professionals engaged in several countries as water engineers, architects, chemists, computer scientists and sports trainers. There are thousands of them now working in several African nations.

The sale of medical services

Cuban doctors returned eyesight to millions of Latin Americans, among them one individual who participated in the murder of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Photo: Raquel Perez

The Cuban government manages these statistics with great discretion, but all sources conclude that there are about 40,000 of their health care workers serving overseas – most of them in Venezuela, but also in 69 other countries.

According to studies by centers specializing in the analysis of the Cuban economy, health care personnel bring in $5 billion USD annually, a significant figure when compared with the $2.4 billion received from tourism or the $1.2 billion from remittances.

The doctors spend periods of two years working in one country or another, during which time they receive part of their salary there while another part goes to their family in Cuba (who are paid in regular pesos and convertible pesos, and are given a discount card to make purchase in stores). Likewise, on their return to Cuba, these workers are allowed to import a large amount of goods with them.

However, the salaries received by these doctors represent a small part of what the Cuban contracting company charges customers who demand their services. This means the bulk of the money goes into the state treasury, making it one of the government’s highest profit-generating activities.

“People of Science”

Public health has been one of the greatest accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, which is not mere propaganda: Health indexes of Cubans are enviable when compared to the rest of the region. Photo: Raquel Perez

In January 1960, in one of his first speeches as prime minister, Fidel Castro announced that “the future of our country must necessarily be a future of people of science” and the following year he launched the nation straight into a massive literacy campaign.

Half a century later, Cuba has more than 1 million professional graduates in diverse branches – of which 70,000 are doctors, or about 10 times more than the country had when the victorious barbudos (bearded guerillas) entered Havana.

Despite the country being left with only 3,000 doctors after the revolution, the provision of medical assistance to other countries began immediately, as far afield as Algeria. Such aid was provided for decades for free.

It was at the insistence of President Hugo Chavez that this system of “internationalism” be transformed into a relation of South-South exchange in which Cuba provides tens of thousands of doctors, teachers and coaches while Venezuela pays with oil.

With the arrival of Raul Castro to the presidency, that system was extended to relations with other nations, such as South Africa, Algeria and Angola. Some 3,000 Cuban professionals are working in Angola, whose services annually contribute more than $100 million to the island’s economy.

The new strategy

Although most of the medical work is now charged for, there are still some Cuban “brigades” that provide support to other countries for free, such as Haiti. Photo: Courtesy of the Latin American School of Medicine.

The government’s new policies seem to pursue the use of those human resources that are available to Cuba: that wealth of college graduates that the national economy is unable to assimilate and see themselves forced to do other jobs.

Although currently the work of most doctors serving in other countries is charged for, Havana has retained free missions – such as in Haiti, where hundreds of Cuban aid workers have played a prominent role since the earthquake and in the fight against cholera.

Cuba is also involved in other altruistic projects, such as “Operation Milagro” (which has restored eyesight to millions of people), medical research in the ALBA bloc nations, and a school of medicine that graduates thousands of doctors from across the Americas and the Third World every year.

The fact that the May Day march was led by health care personnel is a tribute to one of the sectors that has worked best internally over the last five decades and today is also the mainstay of the Cuban economy.

(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.


One thought on “May Day in Cuba: The Doctors Out in Front

  • The “altruistic” medical brigade in Haiti and other countries is not entirely “altruistic”. Cuba, indeed, does not charge Haiti for the much-needed medical services provided in that country. However, Cuba DOES receive a credit for these services with the World Health Organization for which Cuba uses to offset the cost of WHO-sponsored medical supplies received for Cuban use in Cuba.

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