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

Photogallery Oxfam: Ebola Could Be 'Disaster of Our Generation'

Meanwhile, Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba, says the Caribbean island nation will 'gladly cooperate' with the US in the fight against Ebola in West Africa More

Multimedia Kobani Fighting Sends 400,000 Refugees to Turkey

Refugees receive help from Turkish authorities and individuals, but say much more is needed More

India’s Ruling Nationalist Party Makes Gains in Regional Elections

Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge margin over its rivals puts it on course to form governments in the northern Haryana and western Maharashtra states More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fighti
X
Zana Omer
October 18, 2014 6:37 PM
The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Syrian Defector Leaks Shocking Photos of Torture Victims

Shocking photographs purporting to show Syrian torture victims are on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The museum says the graphic images are among thousands of photographs recently smuggled out of Syria by a military policeman-turned-defector. As VOA reporter Julie Taboh reports, the museum says the photos provide further evidence of atrocities committed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against its own people.
Video

Video Drought-Stricken California Considers Upgrading Water System

A three-year drought in California is causing a water shortage that is being felt on farms and cities throughout the state. As VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports, water experts, consumers and farmers say California needs to make changes to cope with an uncertain future.
Video

Video TechShop Puts High-tech Dreams Within Reach

Square, a business app and card reader, makes it possible to do credit card transactions through cell phones. But what made Square possible? VOA’s Adrianna Zhang and Enming Liu have the answer.
Video

Video Church for Atheists Goes Global

Atheists, by definition, do not believe in God. So they should have no need of a church. But two years ago, a pair of British stand-up comedians decided to create one. Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans told the BBC they envisioned “something like church but without God". Their “Sunday Assembly” movement has grown from a single congregation in London to dozens of churches around the world. Reporter Mike Osborne visited with the members of a Sunday Assembly that now meets regularly in Nashville.
Video

Video Robot Locates Unexploded Underwater Mines

Many educators believe that hands-on experience is the best way to learn. Proving that the method works is a project developed by a group of students at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, New Jersey. They rose up to a challenge posted by the U.S. Department of Defense and successfully designed and built an underwater robot for locating submerged unexploded ordnance. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Liberia's JFK Hospital Reopens After Temporary Ebola Exposure

JFK Hospital is Liberia’s largest and one of its oldest medical facilities. The hospital had to close temporarily following the deaths of two leading doctors from Ebola. It is now getting back on its feet, with the maternity ward being the first section to reopen. Benno Muchler has more for VOA News from Monrovia.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Expose Generation Gap

Most of the tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong are students seeking democracy. Idealistic youths say while the older generation worries about the present, they are fighting for the territory's future. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Hong Kong.
Video

Video Liberians Living in US Struggle From Afar as Ebola Ravages Homeland

More than 8,000 Liberians live in New York City, more than in any other city outside of Liberia itself. As VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports, with the Ebola virus ravaging their homeland, there is no peace of mind for these New Yorkers.
Video

Video Kurds See War-Ravaged Kobani As Political, Emotional Heartland

Intense fighting is continuing between Islamic State militants -- also known as ISIS or ISIL -- and Kurdish forces around the Syrian town of Kobani, on the Turkish border. The U.S. said it carried out at least nine airstrikes against Islamic State positions Friday. Meanwhile the U.N. has warned that hundreds of civilians would be massacred if the town falls to the militants. Henry Ridgwell looks at the strategic significance of the city.

All About America

AppleAndroid