These doctors have jetted into some of the most horrifying calamities in recent history, clutching the red, white and blue flag of their small island home. Earthquakes in Indonesia and Pakistan; a cholera outbreak in Haiti; and the Ebola epidemic inwest Africa, where they won international plaudits for their frontline work. Now, as the world grapples with another era-shaping catastrophe, Cuban doctors and nurses are on the ground once again, only this time in a less common location: Europe.
'In Lombardy … everyone is grateful for their professionalism and their humbleness and availability to a country they hardly know,' said Mr. Marco Grimaldi, a politician from north-west who helped to negotiate the arrival of a group of 39 Cuban healthcare workers with diplomats from Havana. 'Imagine if Europe could manage to do the same.'
Cuba’s communist rulers have been sending medical teams overseas for decades in a bid to save lives and influence people.
Paul Hare, a former British ambassador to Havana, said Dr. Fidel Castro launched the 'doctor diplomacy' policy soon after his 1959 takeover as a means of using the island’s highly trained professionals to export revolutionary ideas and make new friends.
'Fidel was very strategic. He saw they had a surplus of doctors and he saw it as a way of garnering diplomatic support initially. Cuba has not been like North Korea – they have always wanted international support,' Mr. Hare said.
The scheme has since become an essential economic lifeline: while some missions are provided free of charge, other countries pay Cuba for the medical services, bringing in 6.3bn dollars annually and making it Havana’s largest source of foreign currency. It is even more crucial now as Covid-19 obliterates Cuba’s tourist industry, another key source of income.
Today, an estimated 28,000 Cuban medical professionals ply their trade overseas, primarily in the developing world.
But the pandemic has seen a new trend emerge – with Cuba sending medical 'brigades' to bolster struggling health services in developed European nations.