Cuba’s biggest export is teachers, doctors – not revolution


School children attend the first day of class of the 2010-2011 course in the Romay Chacon Primary School in Havana, September 6, 2010. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Washington has systematically pushed to ostracize Cuba from the rest of Latin America years after the policy has become anachronistic. By focusing so completely on the “bad” Cuba of authoritarian government and human-rights abuses, the United States has been missing a big opportunity to work with the “good” Cuba on core development problems in Latin America and Africa, such as improving education and healthcare.

President Barack Obama mentioned one possibility in his Dec. 17 announcement on restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Cuba, he pointed out, has more healthcare workers in Africa fighting the Ebola epidemic than any other country. U.S.-Cuba cooperation could go far in combating the disease and finding solutions to this and other major public-health problems in Africa, where Cuban doctors have been active for more than 30 years.

Most Americans may still view Cuba as largely a sugar producer. But the new reality is that Cuba’s principal export is human capital — doctors and teachers.


School children attend a computing lesson at the Nicolas Estevanez primary school in Havana, September 28, 2011. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Consider what Cuba is doing in Brazil. Thanks to left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff, more than 5,000 Cuban doctors participate in the Mais Medicos (More Doctors) program, which helps relieve the massive shortage of healthcare services in Brazil’s rural, often remote areas. The program is highly successful with low-income Brazilians, many of whom now receive quality medical attention where there was none before.

In my field of research, education, we can also learn a great deal from the Cubans, especially in how to train teachers and improve classroom teaching. I compared Cuban classrooms and teacher training institutions with those in Brazil and Chile. I found that Cuban children learned far more in school than pupils in these countries precisely because Cuban teachers are much better trained. Cuban schools also do a better job of inducting young teachers into a well-defined instructional model. These teaching and organizational skills are transportable to other countries.


Cuban doctor Dania Rosa Alvero Pez examines a young patient at the Health Center in the city of Jiquitaia in the state of Bahia, north-eastern Brazil, November 18, 2013. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Tens of thousands of Cuban teachers have worked in poor regions abroad, almost always filling teacher shortages. But the real payoff for countries importing Cuban educators would be the opportunity for these teachers to train their young educators through co-teaching, classroom supervision and mentoring local counterparts, especially in low-income rural and urban schools. Cuban educators could also help bring Cuban-style teacher-education programs into Latin America’s universities and normal schools.

Here is where cooperation between the United States and Cuba could make a difference. One big problem in using Cuban doctors in countries such as Brazil, or Cuban teachers to develop classroom skills in other Latin American countries, has been U.S. stigmatization. Washington invariably paints anything Cuban as “communist infiltration.”

In Brazil, the medical establishment and conservative politicians have opposed the import of Cuban doctors for these reasons. Some years ago, I recommended to a Latin American president that the only short-term way to improve the nation’s poor primary schools was to import several thousand Cuban teachers and put them side-by-side working with local teachers in classrooms for a year.

He rejected my idea out of hand. Bringing Cuban teachers to his country, he told me, was politically “just not possible.” Were the United States to begin cooperating even indirectly in projects that employed Cuban teachers and doctors to improve education and healthcare services, such objections would gradually disappear.

The other big problem is that the Cuban government pays their teachers and doctors too little when they work abroad. The typical arrangement is that the Cuban state keeps about 75 percent of the amount foreign governments pay them for their services.

In Brazil’s Mais Medicos, for example, Brazil pays about $4,000 per month to Cuba for each doctor. But Cuban doctors get only $400 per month in Brazil and a lump sum for the time served abroad – at a rate of $600 per month — once they return home. This is far more than they are paid in Cuba.

But the large share going to the Cuban government creates problems and, in especially bad arrangements such as with Venezuela, many defections. This arrangement has to become more equitable. In return for helping to expand exports of Cuban doctors and teachers, U.S. agencies should insist on this.

Putting more emphasis in U.S. policy on the “good” Cuba could reap major benefits not only for U.S. citizens and Cubans but also for the people in countries served by this cooperation. In doing so, Washington would become more effective in its development-assistance work. Cuba could expand its human-capital exports and be pushed to distribute export revenues more equitably to its doctors and teachers, benefitting the Cuban people overall. In addition, low-income Latin Americans and Africans would receive better medical and educational services, contributing to lower rates of poverty and higher economic growth.

This is not be a bad deal for abandoning an anachronistic policy.

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