Cuban doctors tend to Brazil's poor, giving Rousseff a boost

Sun Dec 1, 2013 9:19am EST
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By Anthony Boadle

JIQUITAIA, Brazil (Reuters) - They were heckled and called slaves of a communist state when they first landed, but in the poorest corners of Brazil the arrival of 5,400 Cuban doctors is being welcomed as a godsend.

The program to fill gaps in the national health system with foreign doctors, mainly from Cuba, could become a big vote-winner for President Dilma Rousseff as she eyes a second term in next year's election despite fierce opposition from Brazil's medical class.

The move to tap Cuba's doctors-for-export program begun by former leader Fidel Castro became a priority for Rousseff after massive protests against corruption and shoddy public transport, education and healthcare services rocked Brazil in June.

Within weeks, she launched "Mais Médicos", or "More Doctors", a program to hire foreign physicians. Brasilia signed a three-year contract to bring thousands of Cuban doctors to work in poor and remote areas where Brazilian physicians prefer not to practice.

Under an agreement that will earn cash-strapped Cuba some $225 million a year, Cuban doctors have been deployed to health centers in the slums of Brazilian cities and villages across the drought-stricken Northeast that had no resident doctors. Bahia state is reopening rural health centers that were unstaffed.

Inhabitants of Jiquitaia, a hamlet surrounded by cacti, goats and famished cattle in Bahia's interior, no longer have to travel 46 kms (30 miles) on a dirt road to see a physician.

"This is a gift of God," said farm worker Deusdete Bispo Pereira after he was seen for chest pains by Dania Alvero, a doctor from Santa Clara, Cuba. "Everyone is happy she is here. We're afraid she will be sent away," he said.

Elderly residents and pregnant women crowded into the family health center waiting for a check up with Alvero, who like many Cuban doctors is an expert in preventive medicine.   Continued...

Cuban doctor Elisa Barrios Calzadilla inspects a patient during a house call in the city of Itiuba in the state of Bahia, northeastern Brazil November 20, 2013. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino