Cuba’s Unwritten Health Care Conundrum
Written by Annemarie Cuccia
Though it may sound strange, Cuba has long been lauded as a prime example of a socialized medicine system. Access to care for all populations is guaranteed, and costs are much lower than in the United States. Even during the embargo, Cuba’s healthcare functioned well. However, cracks are beginning to appear in this seemingly perfect system, and doctors are leaking out of those cracks.
The problem centers around a simple fact– Cuban doctors make about $30 a month. Even controlling for differing currency values and prices in Cuba, this is still a small amount for many doctors who have trained for years to get their degree. Because of this, when Cuban doctors get the opportunity to work elsewhere, they often take it. And these opportunities are incredibly easy to come by.
The Cuban government itself is the cause of many doctors leaving Cuba. Cuba has long had a program to export their doctors to other countries in exchange for oil, and the offer sounds like an appealing one. According to the New York Times, Cuban doctors who choose to go to Brazil can make over $900 a month – roughly thirty times what they make in Cuba. The result of this has been families choosing to pack up and move to a foreign country to practice medicine.
It’s not only Brazil these doctors are moving to. Venezuela has a long history of Cuban doctors working at their inner city medical centers, called barrios adentros. These underserved communities have benefitted from the increase in trained medical staff, but the Cuban doctors in Venezuela haven’t been as happy with their situation. While they’re still paid more that in Cuba, worsening conditions in Venezuela over the past few years have pushed many of them to leave, a problem made much worse by this summer’s vote.
These doctors used to have a way out. Until this year, the US had a program welcoming Cuba’s doctors, the majority of which came through Venezuela. The program allowed doctors stationed in other countries to procure visas. However, as part of normalizing US–Cuba relations, President Obama ended that program in January.
This doesn’t mean doctors are happy to stay in Cuba. Over 150 doctors in Brazil have filed lawsuits with the Brazilian government to be treated as individual workers and not Cuban contractors. More are attempting to stay where they’ve been stationed, or come to the United States another way. Their determination is clear, as one doctor told the New York Times “You get tired of being a slave.”
Meanwhile, Cuba has lost 10,000 doctors to Venezuela alone, and more are attempting to leave the country every day. While the health care system continues to function, many are growing concerned about how long Cuba’s system of angering and exporting doctors can last. As Cuba becomes more open, more doctors are seeking the opportunity to leave, making the decreasing number of doctors in Cuba a larger problem than it has ever been. For a healthcare system that relies so heavily on its doctors, Cuba is sure to be seeing problem if no doctors remain in Cuba.