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

ASEAN Ministers Set to Push for South China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs