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Theft and neglect: the Cuban medical mission in Saudi Arabia

Cuban professionals in the country complain of abuse and pressure.

La Habana

Although not receiving the media attention the Más Médicos program in Brazil did, the Cuban government's agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to send health specialists to that country has also involved shady maneuvers by Cuban authorities since its implementation in 2013.

A doctor who is still under contract in the Arab country recently complained via Facebook about the tactics employed by the state-owned Comercializadora de Servicios Medicos Cubanos SA (CSMC) to appropriate 80% of the salaries of the professionals working in the "Desert Kingdom".

DIARIO DE CUBA consulted with other specialists who participated in the medical missions sent out by Havana and currently work independently in Saudi Arabia to confirm the veracity of these complaints, which all of them did.

The professional in question –who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals– pointed out that, unlike the rest of the Cuban medical missions in the world, in the case of Saudi Arabia, that nation's Ministry of Health actually pays them a full salary, which ranges between 8,000 and 12,000 dollars per month.

According to this collaborator, however, by order of Cuban authorities, doctors are obliged to create a bank account in Cuba, and transfer 80% of their salaries into it.

Although this transfer is classified as a "remittance or family assistance", the doctors do not have access to the account, and the money never reaches their relatives, going directly to the CSMC.

In his specific case, the doctor reported that, of his salary of $8,500, he can only keep 1,200 –below the income level that the oil-rich country considers the poverty line.

The figure is that stipulated in the contract signed by the doctor with the CSMC, a document to which DIARIO DE CUBA attained access (see documents). In that agreement, the amount the Saudis pay the doctor is left blank.

This is the stratagem that Havana found to retain most of the doctors' salaries, because the Saudi authorities do not allow direct transfers to the Cuban government, and, in addition, are ostensibly unaware of this mechanism, which is illegal pursuant to the contract, says this doctor.

An email sent at the end of 2017 to the Cuban professionals by the then head of the Cuban medical mission in Saudi Arabia, Luis Hernández Hernández, ordered them to pay at least 5,000 euros as a "remittance" (See documents).

If the money is not delivered, the officials resort to coercion and threats. Those who refuse are exposed to reprisals, such as being tarred as "deserters" or being expelled from the mission when they return to Cuba on vacation, because they are considered "debtors to the State," explained the source who worked for the Cuban mission.

Hurdles and helplessness

The main concern of Cuban doctors in Saudi Arabia today, according to one of the sources consulted, is being able to have certification of their medical studies in Cuba in order to take the validation exams requested by the Saudi Health Specialties Commission. Without passing these tests, they cannot continue working.

These papers depend on the Cuban authorities, who stall, or simply do not send them, in order to force doctors to return to Cuba once they have completed the first three years of the mission, the source explained.

"Just to get an idea, from a list of 88 doctors waiting for those papers, only 7 have them ready, and they are the only ones waiting to take the exam," he added.

In the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Havana, this source explained, "the Cuban doctors were given a temporary license that allowed them to work without taking this exam, but the Saudi authorities now demand it to continue working as doctors in the country."

"Passing this exam would allow these doctors not only to extend their contract for several more years, but to be able to work on their own and in other countries in the Middle East. But the Cuban authorities don't want that," he said.

Among the obstacles encountered by Cuban doctors in Saudi Arabia, explained another source, is that the local authorities have removed them from their positions and replaced them with Saudis, sending them packing without even giving them a salary.

"This has happened to some of them who return from their vacations in Cuba and find themselves in this situation. Although the head of the Cuban mission is aware of this, nothing has been done to resolve it," he said.

In mid-March one of the members of the medical brigade in the country, Bárbara Morgado, granted an interview to the Hola Otaola! show, in Miami, in which she complained of pressure and threats from the current head of the medical mission Suiberto Hechavarría Toledo.

Morgado said that her contract had been rescinded, without explanation, after two years of mission work, because she expressed her intention not to return to Cuba.

In May of last year DIARIO DE CUBA made public a complaint by doctors in Saudi Arabia about the neglect and dangers to which professionals working in areas of conflict with Yemen were exposed.

In a letter, the doctors also expressed their disagreement with the cancellation of some Cuban subsidies, and reported abuses by then director Luis Hernández Hernández, who was removed from his position soon thereafter.

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