Pandemic deepens divide over Cuba’s worldwide medical squads

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The mayor of considered one of Italy’s largest cities was effusive in her reward for the Cuban medics who spent three months within the nation serving to battle coronavirus. “It isn’t the victory over the virus we’re celebrating,” Chiara Appendino informed the assembled dignitaries. “It’s the victory of the values represented by those that got here from the opposite aspect of the ocean, of solidarity and generosity.”

Ms Appendino, a member of Italy’s populist 5 Star Motion, was talking at a ceremony in Turin this month to thank one of many Cuban groups. They had been amongst 3,600 well being professionals from the Caribbean nation battling the pandemic in 35 international locations around the globe.

Their high-profile work in rich western in addition to poorer nations has sharpened a bitter worldwide controversy over Cuba’s longstanding coverage of sending hundreds of medics to work overseas, largely in creating international locations and often in return for arduous money.

The Cuban authorities has stated about 30,000 of its medical doctors and nurses are deployed abroad. The “Henry Reeve Brigades” — named after an American who died preventing for the island’s independence within the 19th century — are hailed as a beacon of solidarity by worldwide socialists however denounced as a trafficking scheme by the US state division, which has cited “persistent allegations” that some members had been coerced to stay within the programme. Human rights teams have additionally criticised the circumstances Havana imposes on the missions.

Cuba’s personal success in combating Covid-19 — the island has one of many lowest an infection and mortality ranges within the Americas — has given the scheme contemporary impetus, irritating Washington’s makes an attempt to chop off what has change into the communist authorities’s principal supply of overseas alternate, price $6.2bn in 2018.

“The instance that you’ve given along with your altruism, along with your dedication and solidarity . . . is likely one of the finest methods by which we’re crushing the perverse intentions of the [US] empire to discredit the solidarity and exemplary work of the Cuban medical brigades,” Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuban president, stated earlier this month as he welcomed a mission residence from Andorra. 

Cuba’s free community-based well being system, a door-to-door seek for coronavirus carriers, the isolation of these contaminated and rigorous contact tracing have helped it hold infections under 2,500 and deaths under 100 in a inhabitants of 11m as of July 22.

Echoing the feelings of many Cubans, Verónica Martinez, a Havana secretary, stated the federal government had finished a superb job as a result of it had prioritised healthcare and training for many years. “Cubans are disciplined in the case of well being and we respect what our authorities and healthcare officers inform us to do,” she stated.

Initially, Cuba provided its medical companies abroad free of charge, however after the collapse of the Soviet Union eradicated Havana’s principal supply of support, the federal government began charging. In 2015, when the “pink tide” of leftist Latin American leaders was at a excessive water mark, as many as 50,000 Cuban medics had been despatched out.

However beneath strain from Washington, the conservative governments that subsequently got here to energy in Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Bolivia expelled the Cuban groups.

Chiara Appendino, mayor of Turin, with a number of the Cuban medical doctors who got here to Italy to assist throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Havana says it offered its companies to Italy free of charge and denied political motivation © Embassy of Cuba/Twitter

Aníbal Cruz, who resigned as Bolivia’s well being minister in April, despatched 705 medical doctors again to Cuba in November 2019, quickly after the autumn of leftwing former president Evo Morales.

Mr Cruz estimates that considered one of South America’s poorest international locations paid Havana nearly $150m over 13 years for medical personnel. This included a wage for every physician of roughly $1,000 a month, however Mr Cruz stated Cuba’s authorities retained $800 and gave the medical doctors $200. He alleged that most of the personnel deployed weren’t medics however political operators and state brokers.

“This was a piece of political indoctrination camouflaged as a medical solidarity mission,” Mr Cruz informed the Monetary Instances.

Cuban officers in Havana slammed the feedback as “false accusations”. José Carlos Rodríguez, Cuba’s ambassador to Rome, individually stated earlier this week that companies to Italy had been given freed from cost and rejected allegations of political motivation.

A registered nurse in Havana, who requested that her title not be used and who stated she had labored in Ecuador, stated well being employees noticed the missions as an opportunity to make more cash than the $70-$100 a month they often earned at residence.

“The missions are introduced as each a gesture of solidarity, a reward and a technique to fund healthcare and I believe that’s at the least partially true,” she stated. “Are there issues? In fact, however we aren’t slaves. The one scandals I do know of on the well being ministry are when persons are paid off by the individuals they’re supposedly trafficking to leap the road to go overseas.”

However Human Rights Watch this week criticised “draconian guidelines”, together with curbs on freedom of expression, privateness and motion, imposed on the missions. “Cuban medical doctors deployed to reply to the Covid-19 pandemic present precious companies to many communities, however on the expense of their most simple freedoms,” stated José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW.

Cuba’s well being system, a door-to-door seek for coronavirus carriers, the isolation of these contaminated and rigorous contact tracing have helped it hold infections under 2,500 and deaths under 100 in a inhabitants of 11m © Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

The controversy exhibits no signal of abating. Supporters of Cuba within the US, Latin America and Europe are campaigning for subsequent yr’s Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to the medical brigades. In the meantime within the US Congress, three Republican senators final month tabled the Lower Income to the Cuban Regime Act, which might require the state division to publish an inventory of nations that contract with Havana for medical personnel and to think about {that a} issue of their rating within the division’s annual Trafficking in Individuals report.

One senior western diplomat aware of the Cuban medical programme described it as “a very difficult concern”.

“For some international locations it’s price paying for them . . . in the event you want good clinicians at an inexpensive worth for distant areas,” he stated. “However the scheme does have some parts of pressured labour, even when a number of the members wouldn’t describe it that approach.

“There’s a real moral query on the market for international locations which avail themselves of this service. However for the Cubans, it’s a straight financial query — it’s a money cow.”

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