Medical Diplomacy Strengthens Ties Between Brazil and Cuba
Brazil is hiring more than 4,500 doctors from Cuba to treat Brazilians living in some of the hard to reach villages in the Amazon as well as slums located in major cities. The program is part of President Dilma Rousseff’s response to the 2013 protests over poor public services. Although challenged by Brazilian doctors’ unions, Rousseff sees many benefits from hiring much needed medical professionals from a country that has a surplus of doctors.
In addition to improving the public health system throughout Brazil, the project is seen as a form of “medical diplomacy.” It’s a way for Brazil to gain increased influence in Cuba at a time when the Cuban government is taking steps to expose its economy to national and international market forces.
Over the past decade, Brazilian exports to Cuba have quadrupled to more than US$450 million a year. Brazilian companies are expanding into Cuba thanks to loans provided by Brazil’s national development bank as well as aid projects designed to share Brazil’s vast knowledge about tropical agriculture.
This type of economic cooperation is called “soft power.” It’s a strategic plan to slowly build influence as partners instead of competing economies. Brazil is now Cuba’s largest trading partner just behind Venezuela and China. But while Venezuela and China are exporting oil, minerals, and goods, Brazil’s relationship with Cuba is based on developing business opportunities for Brazilian companies in Cuba.
With the United States continuing to prevent American businesses from operating in Cuba with its economic sanctions, this is a perfect time for Brazil’s medical diplomacy. It gives Brazil a virtually unchallenged opportunity to establish mutually beneficial economic relationships as Cuba undergoes political changes.
Brazil’s dire need for doctors is clear. According to the World Bank, the largest democracy in Latin America has only 1.8 doctors per 1,000 people. That number is far behind its neighbors Argentina and Uruguay. Medical diplomacy may be just the boost President Rousseff needs as she begins to campaign for re-election.
However, there are some significant drawbacks for participating Cuban doctors. Co-managed with the Pan American Health Organization, the program’s rules do not allow Cubans to bring their families with them to Brazil. Also, the doctors are paid just a fraction of their monthly salary. The rest is paid to the Cuban government.
Time will tell whether medical diplomacy works at helping improve health care in Brazil while forging new ties between Brazil and Cuba.