Cuban doctors

FLYING THE FLAG: Several of the Cuban doctors and medical professionals departing for Italy to assist with that country’s pandemic pose for the media with a photo of Fidel Castro and flags of Italy and Cuba in Havana, Cuba, on Saturday, March 21. —Photos: AP

For two years the Trump administration has been trying to stamp out one of Cuba’s signature programmes—state-employed medical workers treating patients around the globe in a show of soft power that also earns billions in badly needed hard currency.

Labelling the doctors and nurses as both exploited workers and agents of communist indoctrination, the US has notched a series of victories as Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia sent home thousands after leftist governments allied with Havana were replaced with ones friendlier to Washington.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought a reversal of fortune for Cuban medical diplomacy, as doctors have flown off on new missions to battle COVID-19 in at least 14 countries including Italy and the tiny principality of Andorra on the Spanish-French border, burnishing the island’s international image in the middle of a global crisis.

“I am aware of the position of the United States, but we are a sovereign country and we can choose the partners with which we are going to have cooperation,” Andorran Foreign Minister María Ubach said.

In the city of Crema in the hard-hit Lombardy region of northern Italy, 52 Cuban doctors and nurses set up a field hospital with 32 beds equipped with oxygen and three ICU beds.

“This is a strongly symbolic moment because the Crema hospital has been going through an extremely complicated situation from the start,” Lombardy’s top social welfare official, Giulio Gallera, said at the inauguration last week. “The number of patients who have filled and continue to fill the emergency room and departments has truly put the medical personnel to a hard test.”

The Trump administration has sought to cut off income to Havana as part of a long-term tightening of sanctions. And it continues to discourage countries from contracting Cuban medical workers despite the pandemic, arguing that their pay and conditions fall short of industry standards.

“The government of #Cuba keeps most of the salary its doctors and nurses earn while serving in its international medical missions while exposing them to egregious labour conditions,” the State Department said on Twitter last week. “Host countries seeking Cuba’s help for #COVID-19 should scrutinise agreements and end labour abuses.”

Cuba currently has about 37,000 medical workers in 67 countries, most in long-standing missions. —AP

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