BBC examines Cuba’s medical diplomacy


In a recent article, the BBC has examined the impact of what it calls Cuba’s medical diplomacy—the term that has been coined to describe Cuba’s extensive international medical assistance program, which has been part of the way the island has sought to “export Communism” around the world.

Cuba’s first medical mission was sent to Algeria in 1963 during its war of independence. Large numbers of doctors also accompanied Cuban troops to Angola. Since then, this medical aid has grown significantly, becoming a central part of Cuba’s international relations. Cuba trains medical students from countries far and wide (its first case of swine flu came from a Mexican student returning after the Easter holidays), sends tens of thousands of doctors abroad and has rapid response disaster assistance teams that it has deployed far and wide (the island’s medical teams volunteered their assistance after the Katrina disaster but were politely but firmly turned down). They were sent to both China and Pakistan after their recent devastating earthquakes. According to the Cuban authorities, there are 24,000 students from developing countries studying health care on the island. This includes 10,000 medical students enrolled at the prestigious Latin American Medical School (ELAM). All receive full scholarships on the condition that, when qualified, they return home to work. There are no figures available for what Cuba spends on its international medical programs but it must account for a large part of this cash-strapped island’s budget.

 The BBC article features Operación Milagro/Operation Miracle, a program that provides free sight-saving eye operations for people across Latin America and the Caribbean. The program stemmed from an adult-literacy program Cubans were running in Venezuela, through which they discovered that many people could not read because they couldn’t see. Since it started five years ago, it has helped restore sight for more than 1.6 million people. Their treatments range from treatment for cataracts and glaucoma to corneal transplants and often involved bringing people free of cost to Cuba for the operations. They are offered to people who do not have such services in their home countries or would have too long a wait at home. “Fidel Castro always considered health a major priority so he asked us to devise a simple fast operation, a sort of miracle to restore people’s sight,” said Dr Marcelino Rio, director of the Pando Ferrer hospital (which can perform 300 operations a day) and head of Operation Miracle.

Medical aid has also become a “service export” for Cuba, which it trades for other goods and services. Venezuela, for example, provides subsidized oil in return for the around 20,000 Cuban medical staff working there. The biggest benefit, however, has been the boost it has given Cuba politically. “While Washington is still considering whether to end Communist Cuba’s isolation and start direct negotiations,” the BBC explains, “every other country in the Americas has ties with the Cuban government.” They offer the example of Honduras, a traditional US ally in the region, which has Cuban doctors working in some of the remotest and most vulnerable areas where there are no hospitals. At the same time there are more than 1,000 Honduran medical students being trained in Cuba. “If offering a helping hand is an extension of foreign policy, then (it is) welcome. I wish other countries would do the same,” Honduran Foreign Minister Patricia Rodas told the BBC during a recent meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana. There is a similar arrangement in Belize, the former British colony in Central America. “We used to have a bad image of Cuba but that has changed. Cuba is not the monster it seemed to be,” said Said Badi Guerra, Belize’s Ambassador to Cuba. “Our medical students would never be able to complete university because of the cost, yet they come to Cuba for free. We are very grateful for it.”

For the BBC article go to

Photo: Getty Images. Cuban doctor Daniel Reyes examines a patient 08 February, 2007 at a hospital in the Delmas section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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