The Other Americans: United States Attacks Cuban Medics During Pandemic

There are parts of Guatemala that have no access to medical services from the Guatemalan government. This void is being filled by the doctors from the Cuban medical mission, who are working in the most remote parts of the country.

But recently, these Cuban medics have come under attack. 

The attack against Cuban medics has generated responses of widespread support for the doctors, who since 1998 have provided medical services to more than forty-seven million Guatemalans.

In August 2020, Felipe Alejos, a rightwing congressional representative with the Todos Party, demanded that the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry annul the agreements with more than 400 Cuban medics that have served rural communities across the country since 1998. Alejos, who has been repeatedly accused of corruption for abuse of power and trafficking of influences, argued that the agreements shouldn’t be in place because they are with a communist country. 

“We as Guatemalans cannot accept to be financing a state that is authoritarian in nature,” Alejos said in the press statement calling for the end of the Cuban medical mission in Guatemala.

Alejos has a history of pushing U.S.-based positions in Guatemala, but on October 28, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revoked his visa to the United States due to the accusations of corruption.

Guatemala has one of the lowest percentages of doctors per capita in Latin America, with less than one physician for every 1,000 citizens. Cuban medics serve in more than two-thirds of health areas in Guatemala, including the country’s most remote regions like la Zona Reina, where the Health Ministry has almost no presence. 

These attempts to remove Cuban doctors come as COVID-19 spreads into rural areas of Guatemala. 

Faced with the political attacks, Dr. Amelia Flores, Guatemala’s health minister, affirmed the Health Ministry’s support for the Cuban doctors.

“The position in regards to the Cuban brigade members is totally clear to us,” she said during an interview on local radio following the attacks. “It is indisputable and irreplaceable. This is an issue that we cannot change at this time, nor do we want to.”

The attack against Cuban medics has generated responses of widespread support for the doctors, who since 1998 have provided medical services to more than forty-seven million Guatemalans.

“We support the work of Cuban medics, and we are grateful for their presence in Guatemala,” Rigoberto Juárez, an Indigenous Maya Q’anjob’al community leader from the department of Huehuetenango and member of the network of Indigenous Ancestral Authorities of Guatemala, tells The Progressive. “Through the history of the Cuban Revolution they have extended their solidarity to the whole world with their know-how.”

He adds, “Those who are against them are those who see their interests affected by them: Those who want to sell chemical medicine that hurts our communities.”


Universal health care was a central pillar of the 1959 Cuban revolution. 

“Fidel [Castro] was obsessed with public health,” Dr. John Kirk, a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, tells The Progressive. “He saw it as so important.” 

Following the revolution, many trained doctors fled Cuba for the United States, leaving the country with only about 3,000 doctors. Today, there are more than 94,000 doctors serving in Cuba, which is one of the highest doctor-to-patient ratios in the world.

This has allowed the country to share its resources. 

Cuba’s medical missions have also come under attack from the United States, which has attempted to assert that Cuba is “trafficking doctors.” These attacks have intensified during the pandemic. 

Cuba’s constitution expressly states the need to share the nation’s wealth with the world, specifically in Latin America. One result is the country’s system of “medical internationalism.” 

“They do not talk about medical aid in Cuba, they talk about medical collaboration,” Kirk says. “Cubans have told me that to talk about it in terms of aid is a very paternalistic concept.”

Cuba has sent medical missions around the world. Among the first was a mission to Chile in 1960 to assist in the response to the “Great Chilean earthquake” on May 22 of that year. At the time, Cuba did not have diplomatic relations with Chile. Since the 1960s, as many as 400,000 Cuban medics and technicians have served communities around the world. 

Cuba has also made efforts to train doctors from across the region. In the 1980s, the government of Cuba closed down the naval academy in Havana and transformed it into a medical academy to train doctors from across the hemisphere at no cost to the students. 

Finally, Cuba has sought to respond to natural disasters around the region. 

An emergency response brigade of specialists formed in 2005 to quickly mobilize doctors to respond to disasters. The Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade was named for a young soldier from New York who served in the Union army during the U.S. Civil War before going to fight in the first Cuban War for Independence (1868-1878). Following Hurricane Katrina, Fidel Castro offered to send more than 1,600 specialists in emergency medicine to New Orleans, but this offer was declined by the administration of George W. Bush. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuba has sent medical missions to thirty-nine countries, including Italy, Belize, and Mexico, to assist in the response to the pandemic. More than 3,700 medics were deployed. Their efforts led many to call for the Nobel Peace Prize to be presented to the Henry Reeve medics.

The amount that Cuba receives varies per country, with Cuban medical missions receiving roughly $900 per month for the presence of its doctors in countries like Mexico, according to Kirk. Of this, a quarter goes to the medics, while the remainder goes to subsidize the Cuban health care system and train new doctors. 


Not surprisingly, Cuba’s medical missions have also come under attack from the United States, which has attempted to assert that Cuba is “trafficking doctors.” These attacks have intensified during the pandemic. 

Throughout the pandemic, the United States has attacked Cuba’s medical missions around the world. Embassies have taken to social media to spread misinformation about the doctors. In one tweet from the Guatemala embassy, a meme of a patient paying a Cuban doctor, who motions behind him to a soldier is shown, saying “don’t pay me. The money is for him.” 

Other Latin American countries, including Panama, Bolivia, and Brazil, have bowed to U.S. pressure to annul contracts with Cuban medics and expel the missions.

As the U.S. State Department, led by Mike Pompeo, has continued its campaign against Cuban medics on the diplomatic level, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has moved to renew Bush-era legislation that classified Cuba as being responsible for human trafficking. 

In September, Senators Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, announced new legislation to “strengthen accountability for the Cuban regime’s human trafficking schemes and supports Cuban medical professionals serving overseas.” 

The legislation looks to renew the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which ended in 2017. It also seeks to get medical professionals from Cuba to desert their posts, and classify the medical missions as a human trafficking scheme. 

That is simply not true, says Kirk, noting the expressions of pride among Cuban doctors who join mission after mission. 

“It is a smokescreen to talk about the abuse of human rights and of slave labor,” Kirk explains. “Of the over 270 Cuban [medics] whom I have interviewed, not one has said they are slave labor. They have signed up in some cases for three or four missions, because they were making more money, because of the medical education they were receiving, and lastly this is what everyone does, it is a right of passage.” 

If the attacks from the U.S. government succeed, millions of people around the world stand to lose access to medical services from Cuban medics. 

“They are denying people in the Global South access to medical care,” Kirk says. “They are promoting the deaths of people who, if the Cuban medical missions weren’t there, would die.”

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