FOREIGN AFFAIRS: News Weekly
East Timor: the Cubans are coming
, October 28, 2006
In the last two years, almost 300 Cuban doctors have arrived in East Timor as part of an agreement of "international solidarity" between former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro.
|A patient at Dr Dan Murphy's |
overcrowded Bairro Pité Clinic.
(Patients are reportedly scared of
being treated by Cuban doctors).
|The old Lahane Hospital, |
in the best part of
East Timor's capital Dili,
is now residence for Cuban doctors.
There are reported to be 75 in Dili where they are quartered in the old hospital which now flies the Cuban flag, and others are scattered in rural clinics throughout the territory.
Some have begun a preliminary medical school in Ermera where first-year students are also learning Spanish to prepare them for their studies in Cuba.
Already, over a 1,000 young people have gone to Cuba to study medicine and the fourth batch, comprised of 160 students, is preparing to join them at the end of this year. Further batches are intended.
The 300 Cubans in East Timor are one contingent of an army of some 20,000 Cuban doctors spreading solidarity in a reported 70 countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia.
They are reported to have started work in Kiribati in the Pacific and to be under consideration by the government of Papua New Guinea.Contracts terminated
Several years ago, 11 worked in Nauru for 18 months before their contract was terminated early with the Minister for Health warning other countries to ensure they are "team players and that they have a high level of English and communication skills".
|The Cuban flag flying high |
over the old
Lahane Hospital, Dili.
|Fernando "Lasama" Araújo |
(president of the Democratic
Party) trying to rebuild his
house after the riots.
Despite these warnings, the Socialist Alliance candidate in the recent Queensland election, indigenous Sam Watson, is reported to have called on the Queensland Labor Government of Peter Beattie "to invite Cuban doctors to Queensland as an emergency measure to address the horrific state of the health system ... and increase health education and help move the health system to a far more humane social service".
If invited, it is likely the Cubans would come. Fidel Castro offered to send hundreds of doctors to New Orleans to help victims of the recent flood and only lacked an invitation.
Why is Cuba exporting half its medical manpower all around the world? Could it simply be an expression of "generous commitment to the world's poor", as one explained recently in East Timor? Should we look a gift horse in the mouth, as someone else asked?
One explanation is that Cuba does it to earn foreign exchange. Host governments - and, in this case, the East Timorese Government - pay the Cuban Government, no doubt in U.S. dollars, and probably from aid money, for the services of the doctors.
The money goes to Cuba from where a portion goes to the doctor. Although the price of the doctor may not be high, every little bit counts when multiplied by 20,000 every month. On the other hand, the price need not be low.
In exchange for Cuban doctors, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez - a special friend of Castro - is reported to be paying 90,000 barrels of oil a day for the thousands of Cuban doctors now working in an "Into the Neighbourhood" project in slums.
Another explanation is that overseas employment keeps impoverished doctors off the streets of Havana.
Even if they keep the $400 a month they are said to earn overseas, it is thought to amount to some 16 times their average salary in Cuba and allows them to take home refrigerators, stereos and other luxuries of Cuban life that would, otherwise, be beyond their means.Ideology
Are they evangelising for Karl while taking up the collection for Fidel? When asked if his doctors shed the good news of communism with their patients, a Cuban authority in East Timor denied it vigorously, urging belief the doctors' presence there is only an expression of "el internationalismo".
|Burnt down market stalls |
in the wake of the April-May 2006 riots.
Viewed in Sunday afternoon torpor in the heat of Dili, the contingent in the barracks of the old hospital did not appear gripped with ideological fervour.
Some were lounging in front of Cuban television suddenly available in Dili; two or three were occupied with emails on the communal computers; and others were sitting on their beds in the old wards now partitioned with bookless walls of chip-board.
Frankly, they all looked as listless as inmates. Inmates, of course, are capable of convictions and it is not surprising to hear that the Cubans do exchange the occasional opinion in the rural areas, pointing to China as the prophesied economic giant of scientific socialism to whom the retreating capitalists are beginning to kowtow (which may not be all that delusional).
The Cubans represent the international love of the society which is assured on the extinction of capital. In the meantime they represent all that is good in Fretilin.
And, as fellowship amongst believers, it is only appropriate that young people who would like to go to Cuba to become doctors should have already been aligned with the way of the future, or at least someone in their near family should be member of East Timor's governing party, Fretilin.
What is happening to the students in Cuba is something members of the opposition to Fretilin would very much like to know.
Mario Carrascalao, president of the Socialist Party of Timor and opponent of Fretilin, worries that no independent person has been allowed to check on the well-being of the students whose communication with home seemed restricted.
How are they going? And what are they actually learning? What will they become? What will become of East Timorese society when they return?Learning Spanish
One of the professors responsible for teaching the students Spanish, so they can understand the Cubans, declared they were all "very happy" and progressing in Spanish as he could clearly see by the letters they wrote to him and which he duly passed on to their families.
In return, he was able to send pictures of the families to the students. All this was easier to do through the Cuban e-mail system, he explained, and quicker than writing letters which can take two months to travel from Cuba to East Timor.
There is a strong precedent against independent letter-writing from Cuba of which, doubtless, the East Timorese students have been informed.
A Dr Desi Mendoza appears to still be in prison after writing a critique of the Cuban Government's handling of an outbreak of Dengue fever.
Charged in 1997 with violating Article 103 of the Penal Code concerning the diffusion of "enemy propaganda" through the mass media, the doctor was sentenced to eight years in gaol, even though, according to Amnesty Internation, he was suffering from uncontrolled hypertension, cardiac arrhythmia and renal stones.
The World Medical Association has been protesting about another four physicians and two dentists gaoled in Cuba for human rights activities.Punishment
Cuba has sought to punish severely any of its overseas doctors who have tried to defect, but the dedication of its missionaries will be sorely tested by the recent change in the United States' immigration laws which will make it easier for Cuban refugee doctors to enter that country.
According to a report in the British Medical Journal
, one such defector from a contingent in Venezuela, is Dr Otto Sanchez. He now runs a Miami-based organisation that helps Cuban doctors who have defected. But he claims it is now even more difficult to defect in such countries as Venezuela because "vigilance surrounding the U.S. embassy ... and the borders has been increased since the policy change".
Dr Sanchez reports that Cubans had a positive effect on primary health in Venezuela, but that the exportation of doctors has forced "one in five local surgeries" to close in Cuba due to a lack of medical personnel and supplies.
He also reports life was not easy in Venezuela where the Cuban doctors were "under constant monitoring by the Bolivarian brigades (political police), who are supposed to offer protection but also report any suspicious activities and assure that we carry out our 'revolutionary duty', indoctrinating our patients to vote for Chavez". He adds: "If we refuse to do so, we are sent back to Cuba."
As well as doctors, "literacy specialists" have been the subject of negotiations between Fretilin and Cuba. These specialists who are reputed to be skilled in teaching the Brazilian model (of Paulo Freire) to the oppressed.
East Timor's governing Fretilin Party recently sought approval for funding for these teachers, but was opposed by one of the opposition leaders who wondered how Spanish speakers would teach the Timorese people how to read and write, and why money should be sent to Cuba, when there were many retired public servants in East Timor who could, surely, teach children to read and write.
In any case, he asked, if the Brazilian model is so good, why should Brazil not be invited to send teachers who could, at least, teach in Portuguese.
With support for Fretilin appearing to wane in East Timor just as support for the opposition appears to grow, Fretilin may need the votes of the Cuban doctors as much as their electioneering.
If they keep arriving at their current rate, victory will be assured in the elections next year.