WSJ: Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors

Sunday, November 9, 2014
By Mary Anastasia O'Grady in The Wall Street Journal:

Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors

Havana earns almost $8 billion a year off the backs of the health workers it sends to poor countries.

Western cultures don’t approve of human trafficking, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited.” Yet it’s hard to find any journalist, politician, development bureaucrat or labor activist anywhere in the world who has so much as batted an eye at the extensive human-trafficking racket now being run out of Havana. This is worth more attention as Cuban doctors are being celebrated for their work in Africa during the Ebola crisis.

Cuba is winning accolades for its international “doctor diplomacy,” in which it sends temporary medical professionals abroad—ostensibly to help poor countries battle disease and improve health care. But the doctors are not a gift from Cuba. Havana is paid for its medical missions by either the host country, in the case of Venezuela, or by donor countries that send funds to the World Health Organization. The money is supposed to go to Cuban workers’ salaries. But neither the WHO nor any host country pays Cuban workers directly. Instead the funds are credited to the account of the dictatorship, which by all accounts keeps the lion’s share of the payment and gives the worker a stipend to live on with a promise of a bit more upon return to Cuba.

It’s the perfect crime: By shipping its subjects abroad to help poor people, the regime earns the image of a selfless contributor to the global community even while it exploits workers and gets rich off their backs. According to DW, Germany’s international broadcaster, Havana earns some $7.6 billion annually from its export of health-care workers.

This is big business, which if it weren’t being carried out by gangster Marxists would surely offend journalists. Instead they lap it up. In an Oct. 24 interview with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour lighted up when she talked about Cuba’s health-care workers in Africa. “Cuba clearly has something to teach the world in its rapid response, doesn’t it,” Ms. Amanpour gushed. Mr. Kim agreed, calling it “a wonderful gesture.”

What the Cuban workers in the line of the Ebola fire are being paid remains a state secret. But human trafficking is not new for Havana nor is it limited to the medical profession. In October 2008 a federal judge in Miami ruled in favor of three Cuban workers who claimed they, along with some 100 others, had been sent by the regime to Curaçao to work off Cuban debt to the Curaçao Drydock Company. The plaintiffs described horrific working conditions for which they were paid three cents an hour.

The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time that the company “admitted that the Cuban workers’ passports were seized and that their unpaid wages were deducted from the debt Havana owed the company.” Tomas Bilbao of the Cuba Study Group in Washington told the paper that “these types of violations are not out of the ordinary for the Cuban government.” Their attorney told the paper that back home in Cuba, after they cried foul, their family members lost jobs and access to schooling and suffered harassment from gangs.

Making medical professionals an export product is provoking a doctor shortage in Cuba, which is exacerbating widespread privation in health care. A humane government might turn its attention to this domestic misery, but there’s no money in that. Instead Cuba sells the labor of health professionals abroad even in the midst of persistent dengue and cholera outbreaks on the island.

Cuban doctors are not forced at gunpoint to become expat slaves, but they are given offers they cannot refuse. As Cuban doctor Antonio Guedes, who now lives in exile in Madrid, told the German DW, “Whoever does not cooperate may lose his job, or at least his position or his son will not get a place at university.” As with the workers in Curaçao, the regime keeps health-care workers under constant surveillance and confiscates their passports. Something about that doesn’t sound voluntary.

When given the chance, many of those trafficked have fled. In the last two years alone almost 3,100 Cubans have taken advantage of a special U.S. visa program that recognizes the exploitation of Cuban health professionals sent to third countries. As punishment the regime prohibits their families from leaving Cuba to see them. Getting certified to practice medicine in the U.S. can be long and arduous.

Doctors groups in Brazil have pressured the Brazilian government to demand that Cuba raise the slave wage it was paying some 11,000 Cuban health workers in that country. But last week Brazilian federal prosecutor Luciana Loureiro Oliveira said there is evidence that Havana still keeps at least 75% of the money designated by donors as salaries. She called this “frankly illegal” because it violates Brazilian labor law and said the Cubans should be paid directly.

That would be the end of Cuban do-gooding in Brazil.