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Cuban doctors fight Ebola in West Africa 'voluntarily'

The world is full of praise for Cuba: No other country has sent as many doctors to West Africa. Critics of the communist regime, however, believe Havana's using its doctors for political purposes - and at a hefty markup.

Cuba is showing the capitalist world how crisis aid should work. Since the beginning of October, the communist island nation has sent more than 250 doctors and caregivers to West Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 50 more are soon to follow.

Since the beginning of the outbreak in March, some 4,500 people have lost their lives to the Ebola virus, mostly in the African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Internationally, the Castro regime's health push has been very well received. Both Margaret Chan, the WHO's general secretary, and the "Ebola czar" for the United Nations, David Nabarro, have personally thanked President Raul Castro and his health minister Robert Morales for their support. Even Cuba's archenemy, the United States, has praised its neighbor's actions.

Largest delegation

Cuba casts a shadow upon other nations with its contingent of helpers. And not for the first time: Cuban doctors and nurses were also rushed to Pakistan-administered Kashmir after the catastrophic earthquake there in 2005; there were many more Cuban doctors and nurses there, in fact, than Pakistan itself sent. And in 2010 they were the first on the scene after a similarly disastrous earthquake struck Haiti.

WHO Secretary General Margaret Chan

WHO Secretary General Margaret Chan

Other nations support crisis regions, sending helpers and supplies as well. The procses can take a long time, however, as the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa has made tragically evident.

But "Cuba is a special case," says Jose Luis Di Fabio, who heads the WHO's Havana office.

"The country has the ability to react very quickly because of the experience of the physicians and the political will to do so," he said.

Earning billions

It's precisely the country's "political will" that Antonio Guedes judges from a completely different perspective. Guedes is a Cuban, a doctor, and president of the exile party Cuban Liberal Union (ULC) in Madrid.

For him, the political course Cuba is charting does not have altruism at its core. Rather, the regime in Havana is more interested in international attention and goodwill.

"Cuba is doing this first and foremost to polish its political image, secondly for economic reasons, and thirdly, so that countries that have received their help will vote in Cuba's favor in international forums like the United Nations," Guedes told DW.

Cuban president Raúl Castro

Raúl Castro stepped in for his brother Fidel when the latter became ill in 2008

A staggering 50,000 employees of the Cuban health ministry are currently serving abroad in 66 countries, according to the ministry. Of those, 30,000 are stationed in Venezuela. There are 12,000 in Brazil, 2,000 in Angola, and a further 2,000 in other parts of Africa.

In total, almost a third of Cuba's 83,000 doctors are working in foreign countries.

The government in Havana earns more than six billion euros a year ($7.6 billion) through these doctors, because only a fraction of what the doctors cost these foreign nations are paid out in their salaries.

Brazil pays Havana 3,100 euros per doctor per month. Only because of pressure from Brazil's government do these doctors now get at least 900 euros per month. According to WHO representative Di Fabio, the Cuban government receives a daily flat rate of 190 euros per helper.

The Cuban Embassy in Berlin did not respond to DW's request for information as to the salaries of doctors in Ebola-affected regions.

Severe conditions

Cuban health should expect to be in Africa for six months. By comparison, doctors with international aid organization "Doctors without Borders" remain at the Ebola mission for only six weeks, since the work and safety precautions are so demanding.

To learn the proper handling and use of equipment, Cuban medical personnel must complete and three week course at the 'Pedro Kouri' Institute of Tropical Medicine. However, should they become infected, said institute director Jorge Pérez, they will be treated in a special ward for international aid workers until they are healed or die from the disease.

A Cuban doctor stands in front of a picture of Fidel Castro

Cuban doctor Adrian Benitez, 46, one of the 256 chosen from 15,000 volunteers, poses before heading to West Africa

By comparison, volunteers from "Doctors Without Borders" who become infected with Ebola are immediately transferred to their home country and treated there, so they can be as close as possible to their families.

Given the lack of supplies in Cuba, the decision is understandable, says Guedes, but says this is also a sign of the inhumanity of the regime in Havana.

Nevertheless, 15,000 volunteers from the Caribbean island are said to have signed up for duty to fight Ebola.

Possible, says Guedes, but unlikely.

According to the ULC leader, there is no such thing as "voluntary" in Cuba. "Whoever does not cooperate may lose his job, or at least his position, or his son will not get a place at university."

All of this, thinks Guedes, who runs a medical center in Madrid, does not take away from the result, of course. "Naturally it is always good when people, no matter where in the world, receive the help they need."

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