The Ebola crisis may have brought nothing but terror and devastation to the countries it affected, but for the communist hermit island of Cuba, it was an opportunity to gain political leverage with impoverished nations like Sierra Leone. With Cuba forcing doctors to leave home forever to interact with Ebola patients for barely any money, their traffic in human labor has become an international sensation.
The Washington Post applauded Cuba’s doctor diplomacy with all the requisite ethnic stereotypes: “[The effort] serves as further proof that health-care professionals are up there with rum and cigars in terms of Cuban exports.” Never mind that Cuba’s largest exporter of rum, Bacardí, had to reconstruct its entire operation in the United States after Castro expropriated and ultimately sunk all its assets. “Aid groups like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have been calling for more physical boots on the ground, and so far Cuba has been the only country well poised to answer that call,” praised Time magazine. The New York Times editorial board–a more consistent ally to the communist nation than even the Soviet Union–cooed that the nation’s Ebola efforts should be “lauded and emulated.”
Only one mainstream, big-name outlet has called Cuba’s doctor diplomacy by its name: slavery. In a column sharply titled “Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors,” veteran observer of Cuban politics Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes that the forced migration of Cuban doctors out of the island to places like Sierra Leone and Guinea fits the textbook definition of human trafficking, where “human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited.”
Doctors in Cuba make meager salaries, most recently receiving a huge raise that leaves them making $64 a month. Cuban doctors abroad make even less; how much less is impossible to say, given that their salaries are a state secret. As O’Grady notes, however, the government of Cuba does not send doctors abroad for altruistic reasons, and in fact, makes a reported $7.6 million a year off healthcare services. Both nations like Venezuela and organizations like the World Health Organization pay Cuba the money, ostensibly to be transferred as salaries to the doctors serving them. But clients are not allowed to pay the doctors directly, and there is no indication that they are being paid at all, other than an undefined “living stipend.”
To get a sense of how appealing that stipend may be to doctors, O’Grady turns to two examples of how Cuban state employees have reacted to their work abroad. She notes, first, that in the past two years, 3,100 Cubans have used a special travel visa to escape to the United States, in a program designed for doctors. She notes also that it is not only doctors who are forced to travel abroad through extortive measures such as denying university admission to a doctor’s children or firing family members from state jobs (the only kind).
It’s tough to argue that the Cuban government treats doctors any better than they do shipping workers, part of the “proletariat” the Revolution was intended to empower. Cuban doctors traveling now to Guinea and Sierra Leone will not even enjoy the support of their country once they leave. Unlike Spain and the United States, whose governments went out of their way to repatriate Ebola volunteer workers who succumbed to the virus, Cuban doctors have been told they are never to return to Cuba if they contract Ebola. This also applies to any other deadly disease that may threaten them. A doctor who died of Malaria in Guinea after being sent to fight Ebola was buried in Guinea this month, never to return to the island. Given Cuba’s travel restrictions, this means his family will likely never be able to visit his final resting place.
Even if under the threat of force, the work that Cuban doctors themselves may undertake on these internationalist missions is noteworthy, particularly when so few in the affected nations are willing to do it. We honor the suffering of survivors of any other slave trade–whether in Qatar or Iraq–without praising the slave masters, and we would be making a significant moral transgression to praise Cuba for enslaving its own people just to barely sustain a rotting sociopolitical institution.