‘Unpatriotic’: South Africa’s Health Workers Protest Imported Cuban Slave Doctors

Cuba is sending thousands of badly needed doctors to Brazil, but Brazil's medical establishment has sought to block the program. Here, Cuban Dr. Yocelin Macias treats a patient in the capital Brasilia on Aug. 30.
Eraldo Peres / AP

Doctors and nurses in South Africa protested the arrival of over 200 Cuban slave doctors to the country this week after reports surfaced indicating the country would have to pay the Communist regime far more than it would have if it had just hired local doctors.

South Africa’s government argued that importing Cuban slave doctors was necessary to fight the Chinese coronavirus pandemic. Reports indicate Cuba makes as much as $11 billion a year sending its doctors worldwide and pays them a tiny portion of those proceeds, only a living “stipend” to prevent them from becoming homeless or starving. The Organization of American States (OAS) has referred to the Cuban slave doctor program as “human trafficking.”

South Africa’s New24 documented the arrival of 217 Cuban slave doctors to Waterkloof airforce base in South Africa on Monday, identifying them as “family physicians, epidemiologists, biostatisticians, healthcare technology engineers, biotechnology experts, and other specialists.”

“We ask[ed] the government of Cuba and the people of Cuba to send a multidisciplinary team of experts and health professionals. These men and women are to work alongside South African health professionals in our response to Covid-19 [the Chinese coronavirus disease],” South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor reportedly said upon their arrival. “Cuba has once again proven the character of its nation through its act of international human solidarity.”

The Cuban communist regime enjoys an outsized positive reputation in South Africa due to dictator Fidel Castro’s longstanding support for Nelson Mandela, particularly prior to his release and ascent to leading the country out of the Apartheid era.

South African journalists have published several reports estimating the price of this “human solidarity.” The online newspaper Daily Maverick reported on Thursday that documents believed to be from the South African government suggest that the price of the hundreds of doctors is at least 439,916,337 rand (nearly $24 million), though that price is based on a smaller number of doctors that those who actually arrived. The outlet noted that “both the Treasury and the Department of Health failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on the matter from Daily Maverick and other media outlets – which in itself may be revealing.”
Business Day, another South African newspaper, appears to be the origin of the documents in question. South Africa’s The Times estimated that, if accurate, the price for the total service means that it costs about 2.35 million rand ($127,624.79) per Cuban doctor, far more than the regular salary for a South African doctor.

News24 confirmed the veracity of the document showing that price. The outlet reported the doctors would not be able to work for a 14-day period in which they will be held in quarantine. It is not clear if Cuba is being paid for services that would otherwise have been rendered during those two weeks.

The South African Medical Association (SAMA) told Business Day that “a public sector registrar or mid-level medical officer, comparable to a Cuban family physician, commands a salary of about R1.2m [$65,170.10] a year.”

“Retired doctors can be brought back into the service delivery system – even for a short time. They can also mentor younger doctors who lack the necessary experience and skills,” Dr. Angeline Coetzee, the chairwoman of SAMA, said in response to the imported doctors. “Only when we have exhausted all our internal human resources should a consultative process between SAMA, the Department of Health, and the Presidency been initiated to bring the Cuban specialists to South Africa.”

“While we are not averse to the so-called Cuban Brigade assisting us, we feel strongly that the principle of not engaging with SAMA – as the biggest representative body of doctors in the country – is flawed and wrong,” Coetzee added.

The organization said in another statement that neglecting the employment needs of local doctors was a mistake.

“There are many unemployed doctors in South Africa and many community service medical officers have still not been placed. In addition, many private practitioners have indicated their willingness to assist,” SAMA asserted.

The Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of South Africa (Hospersa), through a spokesperson, also described the influx of slave doctors as a “bitter pill to swallow” for unemployed South African health workers.

“It is quite a depressing situation where government goes ahead and takes decisions like this, especially in a country like ours where we know that there are quite a lot of unemployed health professionals sitting at home,” spokesman Kevin Halama said, according to News24.

The outlet also noted that Denosa, a South African nurses’ union, called the move “unpatriotic,” and the South African Internationally Trained Health Professionals Association (SAITHPA) protested that it is much easier for a Cuban national to receive approval to practice medicine in the country than for a South African.

“Their [the domestic health workers’] bewilderment and disappointment in relation to the disregard shown by the HPCSA [health authorities] to them is now further enhanced by the recent importation of medical personnel from Cuba, as these unemployed medical graduates wonder why R440-million of money from their taxpaying parents has been used to import doctors whilst they remain unemployed and willing to serve through the necessary channels,” SAITHPA said in a statement.

South Africa’s Health department protested that it was “not fair” for anyone to question the price of the Cuban doctors.

South Africa’s medical professionals join those in several other African countries, including Uganda and Kenya, who have objected to being displaced by Cuban slaves. All have protested that their national organizations were not included in decisions on importing the doctors and some countries have had to develop programs in which their local doctors “mentor” the Cubans, as the Castro regime did not provide them sufficient medical training to allow them safe access to patients alone.

Cuban doctors who have escaped the system say they are barely paid enough to eat and that most of their work consists of falsifying medical records to appear more productive than they actually are. At a press conference in Washington last year, one Cuban doctor who served in Bolivia said she was forced to “see” non-existent patients and “prescribe” them medicine. The doctors then destroyed the medicine to claim they had successfully treated the “patient.”

“They tell us often in Cuba that education is free, therefore we are their property,” Tatiana Carballo, one of the doctors, said at the time. “From the moment we graduate, we receive very, very low salaries, then begin medical missions abroad.”

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