Cuba will lose millions in revenue if it pulls its doctors out of Brazil, experts say

Un grupo de médicos cubanos se apresta a recibir entrenamiento en la Universidad de Brasilia antes de iniciar sus labores como parte del programa Más Médicos, en esta foto de archivo de agosto del 2013.
Un grupo de médicos cubanos se apresta a recibir entrenamiento en la Universidad de Brasilia antes de iniciar sus labores como parte del programa Más Médicos, en esta foto de archivo de agosto del 2013. AP File

Cuba’s decision to call home more than 8,300 medical personnel working in Brazil will deal a blow to the island’s already shaky economy, experts say.

Havana announced the recall after Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro said the Cuban doctors should receive their full salary, have the opportunity to revalidate their credentials in Brazil and be allowed to bring their families to Brazil while they work there under the government-to-government agreement.

Bolsonaro later added that he would grant asylum to any Cuban medical professional who wants to remain in Brazil rather than return to the island.

Elias Amor, who studies the island’s economy, says Cuba receives more than $249.5 million a year for its doctors in Brazil. “The end of the Mais Medicos program will be a hard blow to the already ailing Cuban economy,” he said.

The Cuban government has reported it earns more than $12.5 billion a year from the work of its professionals abroad. Most of that money, Amor estimates, comes from Venezuela, where tens of thousands of Cubans are working, including 21,000 health workers.

“The loss of Brazil puts the Cuban economy in a much weaker position. Although the country had a surplus in service sector imports and exports, the balance in goods imported and exported continues to be negative,” said Amor.

Emilio Morales, an economist and owner of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, agreed the Cuban decision “will bring with it problems.”

“The Cuban government prefers to lose the money over being forced to accept that its doctors work under conditions normal for other countries,” Morales said.

Bolsonaro said the Cuban doctors should be allowed to keep the full $3,300 per month that Brazil pays Havana for each doctor. The Cuban government now keeps nearly 75 percent of the salaries.

He said he also would require all foreign doctors in the Mais Medicos program to pass a Brazilian test to certify their credentials. The Cuban medical personnel are exempt from the requirement.

And he complained that the Cuban government does not allow relatives of the medical professionals to accompany them while they work in Brazil.

“Everyone expects that many doctors will remain in Brazil. That’s their chance. But most don’t know that Cuba punishes those who abandon their missions by blocking them from returning for eight years,” said Paloma Nora, a doctor who defected from one of the foreign assignments, known as missions, and now lives in the United States.

Mais Medicos photo 1
Cuba pide que regresen los más de 8,300 médicos en Brasil. Eraldo Peres. AP.

For Reinaldo Escobar, editor of the Havana-based 14ymedio, an independent digital news portal, the Cuban government “seems more interested in making a show of its solidarity … than in curing people in Brazil.”

“To withdraw from Mais Medicos is an act of arrogance,” Escobar said.

The political impact of the withdrawal will also be enormous, said Maria Werlau, director of Cuba Archive, a U.S.-based organization that documents human rights conditions on the island.

“This is the first time that a government takes the correct stand on this form of modern-day slavery by the Cuban dictatorship,” said Werlau. “Bolsonaro was smart and ethical: He will allow those doctors who can validate their credentials to stay and work with dignity, and at the same time he will destroy the system that exploited them.”

Werlau said she believes the Cuban government has already figured out the next destination of the medical professionals to be withdrawn from Brazil. “The withdrawal of the doctors was under consideration since the end of the Dilma Rousseff government” in 2016, she said.

After Rousseff was removed from office on corruption charges, Cuba pushed Brazilian authorities to renegotiate the contract for its medical professionals, winning a 9 percent increase in salaries and a 10 percent hike in the food allowance for doctors in indigenous areas.

A recent report in Brazil’s Veja magazine said President Michel Temer had asked his foreign ministry to ask Cuba to pay the arrears it owes Brazil for the $680 million loan it provided for the development of the port of Mariel near Havana. Cuba is $71.2 million in arrears, according to Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development.

Although there were early reports that Brazil might seize the salaries owed to the Cuban doctors as payment for the Mariel debt, Brazil’s ambassador in Cuba, Orlando Leite, told the Agence France Presse news agency that Cuba’s debt could not be mixed with the Mais Medicos program.

Experts consulted by el Nuevo Herald said they believe Cuba will send more doctors to oil-producing Arab countries, Russia, China and Vietnam.

“Why did Cuba announce the withdrawal of the doctors just after [Cuban leader] Miguel Diaz-Canel returned from a tour of allied countries like China and Russia,” said a Cuban surgeon working abroad who asked for anonymity to be able to speak freely.

Carlos Martínez, a doctor and member of the board of directors of Solidarity without Frontiers, a Hialeah-based organization that helps Cuban medical personnel who defect, said the revenue from the Cubans who work abroad doesn’t benefit the Cuban people, “only the government.”

“The Cuban doctors are sent to the most dangerous places in the world. Many times they work in precarious conditions, in violent places, with little pay. The money paid by international organizations and governments goes to pay for luxuries for Cuba’s rulers,” Martínez said.

Martínez said his organization is lobbying the U.S. Congress to reactivate the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, canceled by the Obama administration in 2017, that provided visas to more than 8,000 Cubans doctors who defected abroad.

“Many doctors are still arriving through the border. They turn themselves in and ask for political asylum. Until now, we don’t know of anyone who was denied,” Martínez said.

Follow Mario J. Pentón on Facebook and Twitter: @mariojose_cuba.