U.S. allies, encouraged by Washington, said goodbye to their Cuban doctors. As coronavirus surges, some are arguing for their return. (Washington Post)

[Co-written with Anthony Faiola]

The doctors and nurses began boarding planes late last year, Cuban professionals who had come to aid Ecuador’s health-care system, their time cut short by a government that no longer wanted them.

Ecuador is one of a handful of U.S. allies that fell in step with the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on Cuba, bringing an end to agreements that filled understaffed clinics and hospitals from the snow-capped Andes to the sweltering Amazon with thousands of doctors and nurses trained by the communist state.

Now that country, and South American neighbors Brazil and Bolivia, are struggling to cope with outbreaks of the coronavirus that have overwhelmed hospitals and, in Ecuador, left bodies in the streets. The surge in cases and deaths, expected to climb in the coming weeks, has partisans arguing over a highly politicized question: Could those doctors and nurses now be saving lives?

“When they left, there were no specialists to replace them,” said Ricardo Ramírez, a retired physician in Ecuador’s hard-hit city of Guayaquil and head of a regional Anti-Corruption Commission. “It’s one important factor why we can’t provide an adequate response to the virus now.”

As the virus ravages countries around the world, Cuba’s Cold War-era medical brigades, long the island’s widest-reaching and most influential diplomatic tool, are having a resurgent moment. Since the pandemic began, Havana has reached deals to deploy emergency crews to 17 nations, from Italy to Andorra to Mexico and Haiti.

The renaissance of Cuba’s “doctor diplomacy” is prompting stark warnings from a Trump administration that has put the Obama-era thaw with Havana in full reverse. Countries that contract Cuban doctors, U.S. officials say, are enabling an abusive labor program designed to enrich an authoritarian state.

“Cuba’s deployment of medical missions overseas, while cloaked in altruism, is actually a scheme to generate income that exploits Cuban medical workers,” the State Department said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Cuba’s medical missions program is not inherently humanitarian; the regime earns income by retaining up to 90 percent of the doctors’ salaries.”

But as the deadly coronavirus spreads, an emergency requiring all hands on deck, more countries are seeing Cuban doctors as part of the solution. Their departure from some South American countries, critics say, has left gaps in frayed public health systems that have grown dangerously wider during the pandemic.


(Photo Credit:  Ismael Francisco/AP)

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