NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Revolutionary Medicine

August 18, 2010

Health care professionals in Cuba are paid the equivalent of $25 per month.  These low wages give doctors a strong incentive to participate in international missions that earn them convertible currency, says Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For instance: 

  • Of the 73,000 physicians licensed to practice in Cuba, 37,266 are now working overseas, under special bilateral agreements between the Cuban government and the governments of 77 other countries.
  • Since 1963, Cuba has sent 126,321 health care workers to 103 countries, according to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health.
  • This overseas deployment of health care workers benefits the Cuban state, as two-thirds of the doctors' overseas income goes to the state and only one-third goes to the individual. 

The Castro government's largest and most extensive bilateral effort is with Hugo Chávez's leftist government in Venezuela.  Under an "oil-for-doctors" program initiated in 2000, Venezuela provides 100,000 barrels of petroleum products to Cuba per day in exchange for three things, says Garrett: 

  • Some 31,000 Cuban doctors and dentists.
  • Training by Cuban doctors for 40,000 Venezuelan physicians.
  • And Operation Miracle, an initiative funded by Venezuela under which Cuban doctors provide eye surgery, in Cuba, to thousands of poor Latin Americans annually. 

The Cuban government benefits politically from this medical diplomacy, including by demonstrating the wisdom of its approach to public health.  It is widely believed that health care workers have become a top, if not the top, trade commodity for Cuba.  Based on oil prices in February 2010, the Venezuelan oil exchange alone would have had a value of $7.5 million per day, or nearly $3 billion per year.  Whatever the exact benefits of these exchanges, however, Cuba's medical diplomacy is taking a toll on the homeland, says Garrett. 

Source: Laurie Garrett, "CastroCare in Crisis: Revolutionary Medicine," Foreign Affairs, August 2010. 

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