South African Medical Students in Cuba Say Regime Starving, Abusing Them

Police officers strengthen security in El Carmelo neighbourhood in Havana on April 4, 2020 after Cuban authorities announced its isolation as a measure to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus after the detection of COVID-19 cases. (Photo by Yamil LAGE / AFP) (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

South African medical students in Cuba under a bilateral education agreement denounced Havana this week for offering them “appalling” living conditions, barely feeding them, and failing to offer them access to proper hygiene.

A report in South Africa’s The Citizen featured photos of meals that appeared to consist entirely of one boiled egg and a small roll, or half a slice of potato. Some of the food in the images was not immediately identifiable as food.

Others complained they were forced to live in unhygienic and overcrowded dorms, one of which recently burned down, The Citizen revealed.

For about a decade, South Africa has been sending medical students to Cuba in a study abroad program allegedly meant to boost the country’s number of specialized doctors and other health professionals. The Cuban communist regime prides itself on its “slave doctor” medical system, in which it sells the forced labor of doctors and other health professionals to friendly states in exchange for their diplomatic aid and significant profits. The most recent estimates suggest Cuba makes about $11 billion a year selling medical labor, while not paying the doctors who do the work.

The medical student program is an extension of the slave doctor program. South Africa pays Cuba millions of dollars, far more than it would cost to educate the students at home, for the allegedly superior Cuban medical education. A report published by News24, a South African news network, in November revealed graduates from the Cuban program struggle to integrate properly in the South African healthcare system and find difficulties being employed, in part because domestically trained doctors consider their education in Cuba inferior.

The Citizen‘s report, published Tuesday, claimed medical students from South Africa have reached out to the nation’s health minister for an expanded stipend to buy more food.

“Their complaints range from a lack of food, appalling living conditions and inadequate stipends that have left them near destitute, while the country’s economic reforms have led to shortages so dire that some don’t even have access to necessities like sanitary pads,” the newspaper noted.

The Castro regime regularly claims to “reform” its economy in a bid to attract foreign investment despite its moribund state. The reform the students reportedly believe is the cause of their strife is the reintroduction of the U.S. dollar into the market to fortify the economy. Previously, Cuba ran on a complex dual currency system featuring the Cuban peso, the currency the common people use, and the “convertible peso,” equal to the dollar and for use by tourists and elites. The change meant replacing the “convertible peso” with the dollar or other foreign currencies and opening stores that did not accept the peso, keeping the average Cuban from access to basic goods of acceptable quality.

The Citizen did not explain how the reform would justify the Cuban government’s inability to properly feed or house the students. The newspaper illustrated the gravity of the situation, however, through photos from the students, some apparently taken from social media outlets. Many took photos of their meal trays, highlighting a wide array of broths, mystery meats, and dry food not significantly different from what average Cubans are forced to consume. One photo showed a meal that consisted entirely of one boiled egg and a small role. Some featured small patties of unknown meat, bright pink and apparently poorly cooked, if at all.

At press time, the Cuban Communist Party has not publicly addressed the scandal, nor have the South Africans. The students remain stranded on the Caribbean island.

The South Africa-Cuba doctor training program, around for at least a decade, has presented issues for both governments for years. In 2018, then-Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi complained that Cuban officials were not adequately handling the number of students they had agreed to take in.

“The Cuban government is not … coping with these numbers‚ the provinces in their budgeting systems did not factor it very well‚ and it is too much for the South African universities to absorb,” Motsoaledi said at the time. “It means increasing the final-year medical students by 60 percent at a go.”

The nation’s Parliament considered “intervention” to help the students stuck on the island with seemingly insufficient resources. While the reports did not indicate that the students were being starved, as they do today, the parliament said the students were receiving “insufficient stipends” to support themselves, suggesting a lack of food and basic necessities, and that their ability to access these things was altered dramatically depending on which Cuban province they were assigned to work in.

Subsequent reports also accused the Cuban regime of repressing students who were caught praying or otherwise engaging in religious activity; Cuba is officially an atheist communist state.

The concerns at the time did not result in shutting down the program, though problems have persisted with it.

In November, News24 revealed that the nightmare did not end for students once they returned home. Local clinics and hospitals prefer not to hire them due to their inadequate education compared to those trained in South Africa. A study on the Cuban graduates’ success found healthcare administrators considered them “foreign and incompetent.” The situation had become so dire for many of those who studied in Cuba that they simply started to hide that fact from potential employers for a chance to compete in the South African marketplace.

The cost to send the medical students to Cuba is significantly more than to train them at home, as well, leading to outrage from many in the medical community who do not understand how the program benefits the country. One report estimated that the Cuban medical program costs over twice as much as the same education in South Africa. Part of the expense is language education in Spanish, which is necessary for the students to follow along with classes in Cuba but largely useless in South Africa.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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