News / Health

Cuban Doctors Tend to Brazil's Poor, Boost Rousseff's Popularity

A group of Cuban doctors attend a training session at a health clinic in a low-income neighborhood in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.
A group of Cuban doctors attend a training session at a health clinic in a low-income neighborhood in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.
Reuters
They were heckled and called slaves of a communist state when they first landed, but in the poorest corners of Brazil, the arrival of 5,400 Cuban doctors is being welcomed as a godsend.
 
The program to fill gaps in the national health system with foreign doctors, mainly from Cuba, could become a big vote-winner for President Dilma Rousseff as she eyes a second term in next year's election, despite fierce opposition from Brazil's medical class.
 
The move to tap Cuba's doctors-for-export program, begun by former leader Fidel Castro, became a priority for Rousseff after massive protests against corruption and shoddy public transport, education and healthcare services rocked Brazil in June.
 
Within weeks she launched a program known as “More Doctors” to hire foreign physicians. Brasilia signed a three-year contract to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to work in poor and remote areas where Brazilian physicians prefer not to practice.
 
Under an agreement that will earn cash-strapped Cuba some $225 million a year, Cuban doctors have been deployed to health centers in the slums of Brazilian cities and villages across the drought-stricken northeast that had no resident doctors. Bahia state is reopening rural health centers that were unstaffed.
 
Inhabitants of Jiquitaia, a hamlet surrounded by cacti, goats and famished cattle in Bahia's interior, no longer have to travel 30 miles on a dirt road to see a physician.
 
“This is a gift of God,” said farm worker Deusdete Bispo Pereira after he was seen for chest pains by Dania Alvero, a doctor from Santa Clara, Cuba. “Everyone is happy she is here. We're afraid she will be sent away,” he said.
 
Elderly residents and pregnant women crowded into the family health center waiting for a check up with Alvero, who like many Cuban doctors is an expert in preventive medicine.
 
“There are illnesses here that I had only read about in books, like leprosy, which no longer exists in Cuba,” she said, mixing Spanish and Portuguese words.
 
Doctors for Rent
 
Cuba has sent doctors abroad for decades to help developing countries for ideological reasons, using medical workers as revolutionary foot soldiers on the Cold War chessboard. Cuban MDs were sent near and far, in countries including Algeria, Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua.
 
Plunged into economic crisis after the Soviet Union collapsed, Castro devised a doctors-for-oil scheme with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez in 2000.
 
The so-called Barrio Adentro plan, in which more than 30,000 Cubans work in healthcare in dirt-poor shantytowns ringing Caracas and other cities, earned Chavez loads of political goodwill among the Venezuelan populace and was paid for with preferential oil shipments to Cuba.
 
Even though most of the income goes to the Cuban government, Cuban doctors are delighted to go abroad because they can earn much more than they are paid at home, where doctors' salaries max out at the equivalent of $50 a month.
 
“We don't get paid much, but we are not here for the money. We are here to help our country, which is poor,” said Lisset Brown, who works at a neighborhood health center in Ceilandia, the largest slum ringing the Brazilian capital of Brasilia.
 
The arrival of 12 Cuban physicians has relieved the overburdened Ceilandia hospital and improved the credibility of the public health system, said Brazilian nurse Tania Ribeiro Mendoneca. “People see the government is doing something.”
 
Today, Cuba has doctors to spare. According to the World Bank, it has the world's highest number of doctors in proportion to population: 6.7 per 1,000 people, compared to 1.8 in Brazil, though that ratio rises to 4 per 1,000 in cities where Brazilian doctors prefer to work, such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
 
Medical Uproar
 
Brazilian doctors initially tried to stop the arrival of foreign colleagues, which they saw as an attempt to undermine their professional interests and medical standards.
 
When an early contingent of Cubans arrived at Fortaleza airport in northern Brazil in August, angry Brazilian doctors shouted “Slaves!” at them.
 
However, they have been forced to tone down their criticism; opinion polls show that a vast majority of Brazilians favor hiring foreigners when local doctors are unavailable, even though doubts remain about the qualifications of the Cubans.
 
One poll in November showed that 84.3 percent of those surveyed backed the Mais MDedicos, as the program to hire Cuban doctors is known, though only 66 percent thought the foreign doctors were qualified to do the job.
 
“We are not opposed to foreign doctors working here. They can come from Russia, England, Cuba or Bolivia but their degrees must be evaluated and the government is not doing that,” said Florentino Cardoso, head of the Brazilian Medical Association.
 
Cardoso, a cancer surgeon, complained that Rousseff has “demonized” Brazilian doctors by associating them with the many shortcomings of Brazil's healthcare system. Putting more doctors in outlying areas, he said, will not end lines for underfunded medical services in the cities.
 
To allow foreign doctors to work in Brazil, Rousseff rushed through legislation allowing them to practice for three years without getting their degrees validated by local authorities, a cumbersome process that can take years. The law, however, says they can only work in basic healthcare services.
 
Meager Wages
 
Having lost that battle, Brazilian doctors are now focusing their criticism on what they call unfair treatment of their Cuban colleagues.
 
Unlike doctors of other nationalities, the Cubans cannot bring their families to Brazil, which opponents of the Cuban government say is to ensure that they return home.
 
The Cubans get only a fraction of the 10,000 reais (US$4,300) a month that Brazil pays for each physician in the program.
 
Municipal health officials in Bahia said they provide free board and lodging to the Cubans, who get paid 800 reais a month in cash. An additional 1,200 reais is paid to their families in Cuba, while 8,000 reais goes to the Cuban government through the Pan-American Health Organization.
 
While other foreign doctors can apply to work elsewhere in Brazil after their three years are up, the Cubans have to either go home or sign up for another stint with the program.
 
“We abolished slavery long ago, but this looks awfully similar. It's not the best way to go about improving healthcare in Brazil,” said Eleuses Paiva, a physician and congressman from a party that backs Rousseff's coalition government.
 
2014 Elections
 
Barely four months off the ground, the program is earning handy political kudos for Rousseff, who can point to the program as an example of her quick response to June's protests, when more than one million Brazilians took to the streets to vent their anger over inadequate public services that burn up taxpayer money and are infamous for long lines and waiting lists.
 
The program is a quick fix that might take time to show results in Brazil's health statistics, but Rousseff's campaign next year would receive a boost if she can, for example, tout a decline in infant mortality in the poorest parts of the country.
 
It could also help Health Minister Alexander Padilha, the program's chief architect, get elected governor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's wealthiest and most populous state.
 
“This is a big plus for her reelection. The polls show there is very high approval ratings for the program,” said David Fleischer, professor of politics at the University of Brasilia.
 
The program has been so successful that Rousseff's rivals are copying it. In Sao Paulo, a political stronghold of Brazil's main opposition party, the PSDB, the government is sending doctors to tend to the poor in the interior of the state.
 
For Dr. Paiva, the congressman, the program is an election campaign strategy more than a healthcare program. “The Cubans will inevitably work for Rousseff's reelection, funded with taxpayer money,” he complained.
 
In the northeast of Brazil, Cuban doctors are indeed winning hearts and votes for Rousseff.
 
“They are humble and look you in the eyes, which Brazilian doctors don't do,” said Angelo Ricardo, as he brought his ageing father to a health center in the Bahian town of Remanso. “Brazil needed this... I'll vote for her, no question.”

You May Like

Video Protests Continue in Ferguson, Spread to Other US Cities

Missouri officials say deployment of more than 2,000 National Guard soldiers helps curb second night of rampant arson and looting in Midwestern town More

Video Ebola, Crackdown on Illegals Hit Business in Guangzhou

Chinese city has largest community of Africans in Asia More

Video Legendary Lebanese Actress, Singer Sabah Dies at 87

Music and film diva, affectionately called 'Sabbouha' by millions of her fans, performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London, Olympia in Paris, Sydney Opera House in Sydney More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Changei
X
November 24, 2014 10:09 PM
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid