Wickham: Hey America, the Cold War is Over

By DeWayne Wickham on June 17, 2015

CUBA 118Normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba also means embracing Cuba’s medical diplomacy.

When Alexandra Skeeter finished college in May 2014, she didn’t want to do much of anything for a while. Like a lot of students who successfully juggle a lot of things in school — she went to the University of Minnesota on a volleyball scholarship and graduated with a 3.3 GPA — Skeeter felt she needed a breather.

But instead of taking a break, she decided to go straight to medical school — in Cuba.

Skeeter, who is black, is one of more than 100 students from the United States who are enrolled in Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine, a huge training facility a 30-minute drive from the center of this city that was created by the communist government in 1999 to produce doctors for underserved communities in developing nations. It also increased Cuba’s political stock in many parts of Africa and the American hemisphere, from which most of the students come.

In all, there are students from 117 nationalities attending this medical school. Students who don’t speak Spanish get six months of intensive language training. Some who have difficulty keeping up with their studies take a class called “Learn to Learn?” It helps them to be better students by teaching them how to take notes, improve their reading comprehension and make better use of the time they put into studying. Several of the U.S. students said they wish they had taken a course like that in high school.

The whole idea behind this medical school is novel, 16 years after its creation. On one level, this is medical diplomacy. Where Cuba once exported arms and a left-wing ideology to countries throughout the American hemisphere, it has won greater political standing by training doctors from foreign countries.

“We want to help get medical services close to the people” of the countries from which the students come, Rafael Gonzalez Ponce de Leon, the medical school’s rector, told me.

That’s a good idea that seems to motivate the U.S. students. “I’m going to be the sort of doctor who works with people who have inadequate health care,” said Juan Manuel Ramos, a Chicano from San Francisco. Getting students to agree to spend a few years providing medical services is the payment Cuba asks of these foreign students.

In 2000, the Cuban government offered to provide a free medical school education to 500 U.S. students, half of them black and half Hispanic. While the annual quota has never been filled, the school’s rector said the number of U.S. students attending has risen steadily.

That’s a good thing. And so, too, is the effort Cuba is making to train doctors from medically underserved nations in Africa and the Americas. For many of these countries, doctors from Cuba have long filled the void. But a U.S. policy that encourages these doctors to defect now depletes their ranks — and endangers the lives of the patients they leave behind.

Those defections reached a record high in the 2013-14 fiscal year, when 1,278 Cuban doctors fled their overseas assignments for the U.S. Unknown is the collateral damage this policy produces.

Cuban doctors were among the first responders to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and last year’s Ebola outbreak in Africa. Ironically, when Hurricane Katrina decimated parts of New Orleans in 2005, Cuba offered to send 1,600 medics and 83 tons of medical supplies to that Louisiana city. The Bush administration, which was widely criticized for its slow response to that emergency that took the lives of 1,577 people in Louisiana, rejected the offer.

Cuba has nearly 46,000 doctors, nurses and dentists to work abroad — an arrangement that brought the government $9.4 billion last year. Some of that money was used to double — and in some cases triple —the salaries of the nation’s 440,000 medical workers, though their average annual salaries remain below $1,000.

As the Obama administration moves to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba, it should stop urging the defection of Cuban doctors working abroad — and applaud Havana’s efforts to provide black and Hispanic students from the U.S. a free medical school education.

Source: USA Today