A plethora of Cuban doctors working overseas to make ends meet are suing their home country and demanding to be released from what one judge called a ‘form of slave labor.’
Countries like Brazil utilize contracts – paying Communist Cuba millions of dollars every month – to hire doctors to provide their medical expertise, making the skilled resources one of Cuba’s most valuable exports.
But doctors see only a fraction of that money and are growing more irritable with what they feel is unfair treatment.
At least 150 Cuban doctors have filed lawsuits in Brazilian courts, in the last year, and have demanded that they be treated as independent contractors who earn full salaries. Countries like Brazil utilize contracts – paying Communist Cuba millions of dollars every month – to hire doctors to provide their medical expertise
At least 150 Cuban doctors have filed lawsuits in Brazilian courts, in the last year, and have demanded that they be treated as independent contractors who earn full salaries.
‘When you leave Cuba for the first time, you discover many things that you had been blind to,’ said Yaili Jiménez Gutierrez, one of the doctors who filed suit, said to the New York Times.
‘There comes a time when you get tired of being a slave.’
Defecting from Cuba has been something athletes and artist have done for decades, with most winding up in the United States.
But the new lawsuits present a conundrum for a country who uses the doctors as a PR boost for the nation’s image as a medical powerhouse that comes to aid others.
For the doctors, not being able to go to United States as a backup plan is taking its toil on their plight.
When they first signed up for the program created in 2013, Dr. Maireilys Álvarez Rodríguez and her husband doctor found the stipend offered by the Cuban government was appealing. While they had to leave their two children behind to be cared for relatives, they were earning 2,900 Brazilian reais a month – worth $1,400 then and $908 now – a steep increase from the $30 they would make back home
In 2006, the United States began a program aimed at welcoming doctors to the country in efforts to undermine Cuba’s leadership.
But in January, former President Barack Obama ended the program, stopping the ability of doctors to get permanent residency visas in the states.
‘The end of the program was a huge blow to us,’ said Maireilys Álvarez Rodríguez,
‘That was our way out.’
And the Brazilian courts, which now hold the doctors’ fate, have ruled against them with only a few ruling in their favor.
Possible repercussions they can face from Cuba, however, include being barred from the island and their families for years.
Conversations began a year back, when a Cuban doctor and a clergyman met in northeastern Brazil village.
The Brazilian government hopes to appeal recent court cases ruling in favor of the doctors stating that they actually make about what Brazilian doctors make in the country. ‘There is no injustice,’ said Brazil’s health minister, Ricardo Barros. ‘When they signed up they agreed to the terms’
Anis Deli Grana de Carvalho was finishing up her three-year medical assignment but having married a Brazilian man, she wanted to stay longer.
The pastor put her in touch with a lawyer in Brasilia and she sued the federal court last year in September to work as an independent contractor. Many other doctors soon followed suit.
The Brazilian government struck up the deal with Cuba in 2013 to provide doctors to impoverished areas. They hope to appeal the cases they’ve lost.
‘There is no injustice,’ said Brazil’s health minister, Ricardo Barros.
‘When they signed up they agreed to the terms.’
When they first signed up for the program in 2013, Dr. Alvarez and her husband doctor found the stipend offered by the Cuban government was appealing
While they had to leave their two children behind to be cared for relatives, they were earning 2,900 Brazilian reais a month – worth $1,400 then and $908 now – a steep increase from the $30 they would make back home.
‘It was a pretty acceptable offer compared to what we made in Cuba,’ Dr. Álvarez said.
Brazil imported thousands of doctors from Cuba and other countries to help undeserved areas under the Mais Medicos or More Doctors program. The move was led by President Dilma Rousseff, who found health care expansion to be crucial.
‘We began to see that the conditions for the other doctors were totally different,’ Dr. Alvarez said about noticeable difference she saw between Cuban doctors and doctors from other countries. ‘They could be with their family, bring their kids. The salaries were much higher’
The deal was brokered by the World Health Organization and had Brazil pay Cuba about $3620 a month for each doctor.
There are about 8,600 doctors remaining in the country compared to the 18,000 that have done stints there now.
Because the program has lowered Brazil’s infant mortality rate and helped indigenous communities, the UN feels it has been a success.
‘The More Doctors Project is replicable and would potentially be beneficial in any country that decides to adopt it,’ the United Nations Development Program said in a report last year.
But Cuban doctors feel replicating the program would perpetuate an injustice.
After arriving in Santa Rita, a poor village in the northeastern state of Maranhão, Dr. Álvarez and her husband soon noted how different their time was compared to doctors from other countries.
‘We began to see that the conditions for the other doctors were totally different,’ she said. ‘They could be with their family, bring their kids. The salaries were much higher.’
Before their three-year stint was over last fall, some doctors were able to extend their stay if they married Brazilians. Others, were told to go home.
Unhappy Cuban doctors formed a group on WhatsApp in response. André de Santana Corrêa, a Brazilian lawyer, said his cellphone was buzzing unstop as doctors sought his help.
Dr. Alvarez and her husband were lucky, they were able to bring their children to Brazil and get a huge pay raise
Mr. de Santana was able to determine, by analyzing the doctor’s contracts, that their agreements were at odds with the equality protections in Brazil’s Constitution.
A judge issued temporary injunctions for some of the cases last year, granting Cuban doctors the right to stay as independent contractors, earning full wages.
One federal judge in the capital said that the Cuban contracts as a ‘form of slave labor’ that could not be tolerated.
But one federal judge found that allowing Cuban doctors to walk away from their contracts posed ‘undue risks in the political and diplomatic spheres.’
As soon as the injunctions were issued, Cuban supervisors in Brazil began firing doctors on the spot.
They had to be on a plane to Cuba within 24 hours, or face exile for eight years.
The WhatsApp group quickly became a support network, when the realization hit that most were losing their cases.
‘We keep one another strong,’ said Dr. Jiménez, who says she has been unemployed since being fired in June and is now barred from re-entering Cuba for eight years.
Dr. Alvarez and her husband were lucky, they were able to bring their children to Brazil and get a huge pay raise.
‘It’s sad to leave your family and friends and your homeland,’ she said.
‘But here we’re in a country where you’re free, where no one asks you where you’re going, or tells you what you have to do. In Cuba, your life is dictated by the government.’
Mr. Barros claims that the Cuban doctors should be happy with their salaries as they are comparable to those that Brazilian ones have.
‘None of them, to this day, has come to me to complain about their work conditions,’ he added.
Mr. de Santana hopes that Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court will take the case but they are so backlogged, that may take years.