With the global pandemic, Cuba is once again promoting its medical missions to other governments facing a shortage of medical professionals. But those governments, while desperate for help, should know what they are getting into.

Abusive conditions are the reality for many of the 34,000–50,000 Cuban medical workers in more than 60 countries. According to the Cuban government, it makes an estimated $7 billion annually by exporting professional services, including these medical missions. This is not assistance — it is a for-profit activity of the Cuban regime. It’s the regime’s top revenue source.

Illustration of doctor holding up pen and document supporting Maduro in front of patient (D. Thompson/State Dept.)
(D. Thompson/State Dept.)

“I have come to know the Cuban medical mission … as a mechanism through which the Cuban regime violates the internationally defined human and labor rights standards of its own people, while simultaneously sowing political and social discord throughout the world,” Assistant Secretary of State for Cuba and Venezuela Carrie Filipetti said at a December 2019 Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation event hosted by the Organization of American States.

According to witness testimony of Cuban doctors who have escaped, many Cuban doctors — often under pressure — double as foreign agents who incite violence and involve themselves in political coercion, Filipetti said. In recent years, Cuban doctors have:

• Threatened to withhold treatment from Venezuelan patients if they didn’t vote for Maduro.
• Been connected to inciting violent protests in Bolivia.
• Falsified data for the political and economic benefit of Maduro’s regime.

That, Filipetti said, is why Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador — among other nations — have stopped using Cuban doctors.

Testimony from some of the doctors who escaped cite various forms of abuse: threats against doctors leaving the program, non-payment of wages, restricted movements, and confiscated passports. According to State Department data, confirmed by the doctors themselves, the Cuban government typically pockets 75–90 percent of these doctors’ salaries. A pending 2018 class-action lawsuit by a group of Cuban health workers alleges they worked under threat of harsh economic, personal and legal repercussions.

State Department officials in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs believe that if a country plans to host Cuban doctors, its government should first ask a few simple questions:  Are doctors paid directly? Is their pay confiscated? Are doctors guaranteed to retain their passports? Are they free to travel? Are their families allowed to visit? The agreements should be transparent and open to the public to ensure the doctors’ rights are protected.

Illustration of woman offering money to doctor looking over shoulder at soldier with gun (D. Thompson/State Dept.)
(D. Thompson/State Dept.)

Host country governments should insist that money paid for the Cuban medical workers actually is paid to the workers directly, rather than filling the coffers of the regime. Host governments could also help dispel some of the concerns circling the controversial Cuban program by making the terms of all arrangements for medical assistance public.

Host countries should also demand that Cuban doctors meet local medical qualifications. Do the Cuban doctors have the same credentials as those who went to a local medical school?

Finally, the Cuban government pays its doctors a fraction of the salary of host country doctors often resulting in unemployment among local doctors and nurses, according to the U.S. State Department, which asks why local medical practitioners don’t have opportunities to earn an honest living and help their fellow citizens.

Medical workers are a precious resource — now more than ever — and should be treated fairly.