US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo on Wednesday criticised South Africa and Qatar for accepting doctors from Cuba to battle the coronavirus, accusing the communist island of profiting from the pandemic.
Cuba’s globe-trotting doctors have long been a source of diplomatic soft power and pride for Havana, but the US says the medical workers only benefit their government and has encouraged them to defect.
“We’ve noticed how the regime in Havana has taken advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to continue its exploitation of Cuban medical workers,” Pompeo told reporters.
“We applaud leaders in Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries, which have refused to turn a blind eye to these abuses by the Cuban regime, and ask all countries to do the same, including places like South Africa and Qatar,” he said.
“Governments accepting Cuban doctors must pay them directly. Otherwise, when they pay the regime, they are helping the Cuban government turn a profit on human trafficking.”
South Africa, which like Qatar has friendly relations with the United States, on Monday announced that 217 Cuban doctors had arrived in the country, which has the highest number of coronavirus infections in Africa.
Cuba has sent doctors to more than a dozen countries during the Covid-19 pandemic, including hard-hit Italy.
France has also authorised Cuban teams to help in its overseas territories.
Cuba has made healthcare a societal pillar, despite the poverty of the island, which has been subject to US sanctions for six decades.
Former President Barack Obama sought to reconcile with Cuba, calling the isolation policy a failure, and ended a programme in which Washington encouraged Cuban doctors to defect and resettle in the United States – whose capitalist medical system offers exponentially higher incomes.
President Donald Trump’s administration has snapped back US pressure sharply and has imposed visa restrictions on Cuban officials involved in medical missions.
Cuba says it earned $6.3 billion from its medical dispatches in 2018 and used the proceeds to finance its own universal healthcare coverage.
One of the staunchest critics of the programme is Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right ally of Trump, who kicked out 8 000 Cuban health workers when he took office.