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A Medical Brigade on a War Footing: Questions about Cuba’s Soft Power

The late Fidel Castro tried to export the Cuban Revolution in particular to South American and African countries, but with mixed results. He got the idea, long before the current Coronavirus health crisis, to project his model of society into the wider world by exporting Doctors rather than Revolutions. With the end of the cold war Havana exported thousands of doctors and nurses instead of arms and revolutionaries. Cuba’s authorities created a special Medical Brigade -named Henry Reeve- in order to help quickly and massively countries badly affected by natural disasters and outbreaks. Between 2005 and 2018 this Medical Brigade helped more than 3.5 million people in 21 countries affected by floods, earthquakes and epidemics (Re.Pan American Health Organization). That said, it is important to recall that some missions were not purely humanitarian. This was especially the case in Venezuela. This country is a major oil producer. It is therefore not surprising that this programme has been called « Oil for Doctors ». Havana sent significant medical teams and their equipment and in return purchased Venezuelan oil at below market prices. Today Cuba has one of the highest doctor-to -patient ratios in the world. But doctors in Cuba are poorly paid. Cuba currently has about 37.000 medical workers in 67 countries across the world (Re.New-York Times). But these doctors are not only overexploited they are also under the close surveillance of Cuban authorities.

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