NZ to assist Cuban medical programme in the Pacific

Passing beneath the radar this month was the signing of

a formal agreement

whereby New Zealand will assist the work of Cuban doctors in Pacific island nations.

New Zealand has agreed to provide an 18-week English language training course for up to 15 Cuban doctors who’ll be practicing in the South Pacific. New Zealand will also pay for the airfares of the doctors from Cuba to New Zealand, and onwards to the islands when they have finished the training course.

New Zealand/Cuban cooperation in the health area was something I promoted when I was a Green MP, and it’s heartening to see success, in what the Foreign Ministry’s acting head Craig Hawke calls “a practical, tangible piece of cooperation”.

Cuba is a

super-power in the medical aid field

, with 50,000 health professionals serving in 66 countries and 20,000 students from developing countries enrolled in medical programmes in Cuba.

Cuba has a few dozen doctors practicing in the Solomons, Vanuatu, Kiribati, and Tuvalu.  They have had a particularly big programme in Timor Leste, where in 2012 there were 300 Cuban doctors.

About 200 students from the Solomons, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Nauru, Tuvalu, Tonga, Palau and Fiji are currently studying medicine in Cuba. Visiting Cuba in early 2011, I met with students from Fiji and the Solomons at one of the bigger medical colleges, the Latin American School of Medicine. They were happy with their progress, and having a great time in a multi-national environment.

One of the problems with the training of indigenous medical professionals in the Pacific is that it’s hard to hold them. Many go off to richer countries, with their bigger salaries. Those trained in Cuba will tend to have a more ingrained sense of moral duty and be more likely to hang around.

A Solomon Island community leader, Roger Tannick

, is confident of this after seeing the dedication of Cuban doctors practicing in his Red Beach community. He expects that the Solomon Islander graduates coming back from Cuba will have “the Cuban mentality in their blood system – that is, to go out and deliver services to the people.”

The arrival of Cuban doctors in the South Pacific initially drew a hostile response from Australia. In 2007 the

then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer

said that “bringing in Cuban doctors could contribute to destablished security in the Pacific.”  The subsequent Australian Labor government took a more sympathetic line, but Tony Abbott’s government

has backed off any support


Obama’s improvement of relations with Cuba has been accompanied by some positive noises about Cuba’s international medical programme. Last October

US Secretary of State John Kerry praised Cuba

as “a country of just 11 million people, [which] has sent 165 health professionals [to combat Ebola in West Africa] and it plans to send nearly 300 more.”  I note that one US university, Northwestern,

now encourages its students

to attend courses on development medicine in Havana and has them credited to their Northwestern degrees.

The priority Cuba gives such work is a testimony to its internationalism, particularly when the country is not well off, and the Cuban economy is still suffering from the American economic blockade.  New Zealand covering the cost of expensive airfares from Havana and to the islands, as well as the and English-language training for the doctors, will help a lot.