May Day in Cuba: The Doctors Out in Front
May 2, 2012
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
The sale of medical services
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
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
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
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.