Cuba Is the Saudi Arabia of Doctors

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Jan. 2 2014 10:01 AM

Brazil’s Health Care Solution: More Cuban Doctors

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Foreign doctors, mostly Cubans, involved in the Brazilian government's More Doctors program visit a shelter for Brazil's indigenous Indians, in Brasilia on Sept. 6, 2013.

Photo by Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

The Brazilian government is carrying out a controversial scheme to address a shortage of medical professionals in rural areas by importing more doctors from Cuba, reports the Financial Times:

Dr Wlad came to Brazil in the late 1990s as part of an earlier generation of Cuban doctors working abroad to generate export earnings for the island’s dictatorship. Now Ms Rousseff is ramping up the scheme, known as “Mais Médicos” or “More Doctors”, with 3,000 mostly foreign medics starting work this month across Brazil.
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By March next year there will be 6,600 doctors working in thousands of municipalities, the majority of them Cuban. The policy is one of the few concrete responses of Ms Rousseff’s centre-left government to mass protests that shook Brazil in June as demonstrators attacked a perceived failure of the political classes to provide quality transport, health and education. 

Allowing more immigration to address a labor shortage is one thing, but the Cuban doctor program is somewhat unusual. The doctors are paid through the Cuban government, and Brazil’s National Doctors Federation claims they receive only about 10 percent of their $4,250 monthly salary, though even that’s still about 10 times what doctors typically make in Cuba. The group also complains that the Cuban doctors have not passed Brazil’s tough medical exams.

In any event, medical services have emerged as Cuba’s top export, taking in about $6 billion per year for the Castro government. About 40,000 Cuban doctors now work on contract in 66 countries, mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. About three-quarters of them are in Venezuela, part of a trade and energy deal between the two countries.   

The Cuban program has been somewhat undermined by a recent U.S. policy allowing Cuban medical personnel “who study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government” to travel to the United States legally. By some estimates about 6,000 defected between 2003 and 2009.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.