It's the first time a Cuban medical mission was deployed in Europe, yet it is estimated that between 135,000 and 400,000 Cuban healthcare workers have been deployed globally over the past decades.

(Note from El Equipo: To date, Cuba has 3,000 reported cases of COVID-19, and 88 deaths. After several days with no cases, it was reported on August 4th that there were 29 new cases associated with medical personnel returning from Venezuela. 20,000 Cuban healthcare workers are stationed in Venezuela, including a delegation of 130 sent this past March.)

cuban doctors
Photo: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

As the Coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the lives of countless communities and countries around the world, Cuba has done well controlling the virus at home, with only 87 reported deaths as of July 23rd. Around the world, the important work of doctors, nurses and other health workers has seen a surge in public and mainstream appreciation and value. 

Medical missions have become a cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy and it is estimated that currently more than 28,000 Cuban healthcare workers are serving in more than 60 countries

Terms such as “healthcare heroes” are commonly used to describe the sacrifice and hard work of countless practitioners as they fulfill their hippocratic oath or professional duties to care for the sick to the best of their ability. In the face of suffering and loss of life, including the risk to their own, many have been steadfastly committed to working countless long and arduous days and nights for months now. 

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Medical humanitarianism and medical diplomacy are not new. For decades, countries and organizations have been sending medical missions to other countries, either in a time of acute natural or manmade crises or in the face of systematic medical needs. 

Cuba has long been recognized as a leader in this area, frequently sending medical missions to other countries. Such medical missions have become a cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy and it is estimated that currently more than 28,000 Cuban healthcare workers are serving in more than 60 countries

While this was the first time a Cuban medical mission was deployed in Europe, over the past decades it is estimated that between 135,000 and 400,000 Cuban healthcare workers have been deployed globally over the past decades.

During the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy in March and April, Cuba sent two medical missions to the hardest-hit regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, where tens of thousands of people had already died. More than 50 healthcare workers traveled on the first mission, and more than 35 on the second mission

While this was the first time a Cuban medical mission was deployed in Europe, over the past decades it is estimated that between 135,000 and 400,000 Cuban healthcare workers have been deployed globally. In recent months, Cuba has continued to send medical missions to more than 20 other countries to support Coronavirus efforts. 

cuban doctors
Photo: AP Photo/Ismael Francisco

While for some this is seen as a gesture of international solidarity and humanitarianism, for others it is seen as a business model as some medical missions (not all) generate foreign currency for the government. Though published accounts of the financial structure and compensation to Cuban healthcare workers vary, medical missions generated approximately USD 6.4 billion for the Cuban government in 2018. 

…some are motivated by a sense of duty and humanity, others feel compelled to join such healthcare missions as it is one of the few ways they can earn a higher income than they would otherwise receive when working as a doctor inside Cuba. 

The Cuban doctors and other healthcare workers who serve in these missions often spend long periods of time away from their families. While some are motivated by a sense of duty and humanity, others feel compelled to join such healthcare missions as it is one of the few ways they can earn a higher income than they would otherwise receive when working as a doctor inside Cuba. 

In one example, according to the Brazilian Health Ministry, prior to the end of the participation of Cuban doctors in Brazil’s More Doctors program in 2018, which was an initiative to bring doctors to work in underserved areas, the Brazilian government had been paying approximately $3,600 per doctor per month to the Cuban government, of which approximately USD 1,000 per month was then given to the doctors. 

While many debate the political motivations, merit and impact of medical humanitarianism and medical diplomacy, I had the opportunity to speak with two Cuban doctors about their experiences and thoughts. They preferred to comment anonymously. 

Luisa*, 54, served as a general practitioner in Cuba and Venezuela before immigrating to Mexico where she currently works in a hospital. 

Recently, a global campaign was launched to award the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade, which is made up of thousands of Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians…

She shared that on a professional level, she felt her service as a doctor in Venezuela was very rewarding as she felt she was able to support poor and rural communities, many of whom were receiving healthcare for the first time in their lives. The medical mission she had served with set the groundwork for important improvements in the Venezuelan healthcare system, she said. However, on a personal level Luisa found it very challenging as she was away from her family for years and felt like she missed a lot as sometimes more than a year passed before she was able to visit. 

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When I asked her why she thinks many Cuban doctors agree to serve in these missions she replied: “They do it because of their sense of humanity. They know it’s a dangerous and challenging task but they are willing to go. Also, for many it represents an opportunity to have a better income because doctors do not get paid well in Cuba. It’s no easy task to be a doctor and not be able to provide for your family. The importance of this position is not being rewarded as it should, same thing for teachers. These are key pillars in our society and unfortunately they are not being compensated.“ 

Luisa added that “the human side of this profession is what I like the most. Being able to give peace to my patients is very rewarding.” 

Pablo*, 59, served as a surgeon in medical missions in Venezuela, Ghana, Angola and other countries and continues to work as a surgeon in Cuba. Pablo no longer believes in the same ideals that he held when he completed his medical missions in the past. 

“Time has passed and life is still difficult. I don’t regret what I do, however now I see things with a different perspective,” said Pablo. “I don’t want to discuss it but what I can tell you is that from the beginning everything I have done has required a lot of sacrifice.” 

Recently, a global campaign was launched to award the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade, which is made up of thousands of Cuban doctors, nurses and technicians specializing in providing emergency medical relief in disasters and serious epidemics globally. 

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The brigade was named after Henry Reeve, an American doctor and member of Cuba’s “Ejército Libertador” who died supporting Cuba’s fight for independence from Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century. 

The brigade was initially launched in 2005 to provide assistance to those affected by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Despite being refused by the George W. Bush administration, the Brigade has served in numerous other countries since then. 

cuban doctors
Photo: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Endorsed by famous names such as American actor Danny Glover, the former president of Brazil Luis Ignacio Da Silva, American novelist Alice walker and many others, the campaign has garnered a lot of support. 

As the Coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated, no matter where we live, what our political beliefs and life circumstances are and our varying levels of access to health care services, we all breathe and bleed and are vulnerable to illness and suffering.

It is especially in such times that we need to support one another, especially our healthcare workers, who have historically and continually made countless personal sacrifices to support us, both locally and globally. 

*not actual names

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Safa Shahkhalili

Safa Shahkhalili is the founder and host of the “Rethinking Development Podcast.” She lived and studied in five countries before graduating from high school, and her interest in cultural studies led her to study anthropology in Canada and Denmark. She has since worked on various international development research projects. Her interest in Cuba began in 2016 and has grown through the many lovely Cubans she has met over the years, including her partner. Safa used to be a standup/slam poet and yoga teacher!

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