[Marxism] Brazil Forging Economic Ties With Cuba, While Hiring Its Doctors

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 30 07:09:56 MST 2013

(Rancid Cuban reporting on Syria sapped me of the energy I required to 
continue with my critique of Sam Farber's new book on Cuba but if I had 
continued, I would have had a field day on his assertion that Cuban 
doctors are simply a means to generate revenue--a form of capitalist 
enterprise little different than exporting tobacco. Farber has never 
been capable of seeing Cuba dialectically, and in this instance failed 
to see the broader dimensions of Cuban doctors assigned to work in other 
countries. Yes, in Brazil they help to cement economic ties but they are 
also working in areas generally avoided by white Brazilian physicians.)

NY Times December 29, 2013
Brazil Forging Economic Ties With Cuba, While Hiring Its Doctors

RIO DE JANEIRO — The conditions around the public health clinic in the 
vast slum of Jacarezinho are precisely what most Brazilian doctors 
prefer to avoid: dealers of crack cocaine ply their trade along 
dilapidated train tracks, and the odor from a crematory for stray dogs 
overwhelms patients and medical workers.

“Of course I knew this mission wouldn’t be easy,” said Idarmis González, 
45, one of the more than 4,500 Cuban doctors the Brazilian government is 
hiring to work in far-flung villages in the Amazon and slums in major 
cities. “We go where other doctors do not,” said Ms. González as she 
examined an infant suffering from dehydration and diarrhea.

Faced with a wave of street protests in 2013 over deplorable public 
services, President Dilma Rousseff has made the hiring of Cuban doctors 
a cornerstone of her response to the turmoil, overriding the resistance 
of doctors’ unions to sending the Cubans, trained in a Communist country 
that says it has a surplus of doctors, into neglected parts of Brazil’s 
public health system.

But the project also points to a broader ambition of Brazil’s 
government, which is vying to exert influence in Cuba as the authorities 
in Havana slowly expose the island nation’s economy to market forces.

Brazilian exports to Cuba are surging, quadrupling over the past decade 
to more than $450 million a year. The inroads made by Brazilian 
companies in Cuba, relying on loans from Brazil’s national development 
bank and aid projects that share Brazil’s expertise in tropical 
agriculture, reflect a sophisticated projection of soft power in a 
country where Washington’s influence remains negligible.

“This is Brazil playing the long strategic game in the Caribbean,” said 
Julia E. Sweig, director for Latin American studies at the Council on 
Foreign Relations.

Cuba benefits, too. Its medical diplomacy, established decades ago with 
the export of doctors to developing countries, is reaping a major 
dividend with Brazil’s new project, worth as much as $270 million a year 
to Cuba’s government. The medical alliance bolsters ties between the 
countries, a prospect that Brazilian leaders have been vigorously 
cultivating since the 1990s.

For Brazil, the payoff is obvious: It now ranks among Cuba’s largest 
trading partners, behind Venezuela and China. For Venezuela, Cuba’s top 
ally and the supplier of about 100,000 barrels a day of subsidized oil, 
ideology forms the basis for stronger ties; for Brazil the relationship 
is more about finding opportunities for Brazilian companies.

For instance, a Brazilian soap opera produced by the Globo network, 
“Avenida Brasil,” now appears on Cuban state television, offering 
viewers a taste of life in Rio de Janeiro’s gritty suburbs.

Building on Brazilian assistance programs to lift Cuban farm yields, 
Brazilian soybean and rice farmers are also emerging as top suppliers of 
food to Cuba.

But Brazil’s top project in Cuba is the $900 million upgrade of the Port 
of Mariel by the construction giant Odebrecht, the same company that has 
carried out various infrastructure projects in South Florida.

While Washington’s prolonged economic sanctions prevent most American 
companies from doing business with Cuba, Brazil’s efforts to gain a 
foothold in Cuba come at a time when the island’s economic relations are 
in a state of flux.

Venezuela remains Cuba’s top benefactor, but it is unclear whether 
Venezuela can sustain such largess as it confronts economic troubles of 
its own. Venezuela and Cuba recently delayed a $700 million nickel 
venture, and talk of other cooperation projects has died down. At the 
same time, Chinese exports to Cuba have climbed sharply. Chinese tourist 
buses can be seen outside big hotels, Chinese-built Geely cars have 
become de rigueur for Cuban officials and thousands of students studying 
the Spanish language fill hostels and Havana’s tiny strip of 
Chinese-Cuban restaurants.

Brazil’s profile within Cuba remains far more subtle, but the arrival of 
thousands of Cuban doctors, many of whom are black, has made a big 
splash here, shaking Brazil’s medical establishment and revealing some 
painful tensions over race and privilege. “These doctors from Cuba are 
slave doctors,” said Wellington Galvão, director of the physicians union 
of Alagoas in northeast Brazil, repeating an assessment of the project 
by critics who contend that the conditions faced by the Cubans in Brazil 
are degrading.

Under terms of the program, which is managed in part by the Pan American 
Health Organization, the Cubans are not allowed to bring their families 
to Brazil and receive only a fraction of their monthly salary of about 
$4,255. The rest is paid to Cuba’s government, providing it with a new 
source of hard currency.

Supporters of the project in Brazil retort that the description of the 
Cuban doctors as slaves is a sign of thinly veiled racism and class bias 
among the medical establishment. Ms. Rousseff herself has lashed out at 
what she called “prejudice” against the Cubans.

Brazil ranks well below neighboring Argentina and Uruguay with just 1.8 
doctors per 1,000 people, according to the World Bank, so hiring the 
Cubans could be seen as a savvy political move by Ms. Rousseff, who is 
running for re-election next year. “I’m just happy to have a doctor, 
period, whether he’s Cuban or not,” said Sthefani Nogueira, 21, after a 
gynecological exam at a public clinic in the Rio neighborhood of 
Realengo, performed by Israel Fernández, 47, a Cuban doctor who arrived 
here in October.

With the project in its infancy, pitfalls could still emerge. After 
Venezuela began hiring Cuban doctors in 2003, hundreds of them fled 
their posts to request asylum in the United States.

In Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy, confusion has persisted 
over whether the Cuban doctors arriving here will be able to request 
political asylum. A spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry said that the 
Cubans would be able to request refugee status if they said that they 
were being persecuted for their political beliefs, though she said none 
had taken that step in 2013.

Brazil’s efforts to deepen ties with Cuba have encountered other 
problems. Dealing a blow to Cuba’s ambitions of increasing oil 
production, the Brazilian oil company Petrobras halted an offshore 
exploration operation in Cuban waters after drilling produced 
disappointing results. And Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant, 
has had to wage legal battles with some Cuban-Americans in Florida over 
its activities in Cuba.

But the doctors who return to Cuba from Brazil may carry with them the 
seeds of new perspectives after witnessing Brazil’s efforts to respond 
to the recent street protests and other forms of political dissent. 
“Brazil is a model for Cuba in that it has managed to develop its 
economy with peace and consensus,” said Roberto Veiga, the editor of a 
Cuban magazine funded by the German Bishops’ Conference.

Simon Romero reported from Rio de Janeiro, and Victoria Burnett from 
Mexico City. Taylor Barnes contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.

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