A new bill introduced by Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott on Wednesday would target countries that hire Cuban doctors through the “medical missions” controlled by the island’s government.
The Cut Profits to the Cuban Regime Act requires the State Department to publish the list of countries that contract the doctors through the Cuban government and to consider that as a factor in their ranking in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report.
Scott, who led the effort along with Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the Cuban government was participating “in the human trafficking of doctors” and that any country that requests medical assistance from Cuba is aiding such efforts.
Rubio also called the missions “a form of modern-day human trafficking.”
The Cuban government has almost 30,000 healthcare workers contracted in more than 50 countries. And senators said the government was trying to profit from the pandemic too, as around 2,500 doctors and nurses have been sent to more than 20 nations to treat COVID-19 patients.
The Cuban government has contested such accusations and said the missions are examples of cooperation and solidarity. And several governments have praised Cuba for sending medical workers.
But doctors who have abandoned the medical brigades have said the island’s government gave them only a small fraction of the salaries paid by the host countries, and that Cuban officials seized their documents to restrict their movements, among other allegations.
According to the Senate proposal, countries that pay the doctors directly, ensure that no one confiscates their passports or wages, and allow them to bring their family members with them, will not be affected in the State Department’s evaluation.
Cruz said the legislation would send “a strong warning that the United States will not turn a blind eye to the trafficking of Cuban doctors.”
In recent months, the Trump administration has been more aggressive in denouncing these medical missions, which provided more than $6 billion in revenue to the Communist government in 2018.
Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador have rescinded their contracts with the Cuban government. Algeria took the unusual step of publishing its $70 million agreement with the Cuban government for the provision of medical services in that African nation.
United States presses PAHO for answers
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that the Pan American Health Organization explain its role as intermediary in the hiring of thousands of Cuban doctors to work in the Mais Medicos program in Brazil.
According to a lawsuit filed in Miami against PAHO and official documents published in Brazil, the organization collected $75 million in fees to broker the program. Brazil initially paid $4,000 for each doctor, but the Cuban government only gave them $1,000, and a portion of that smaller amount was kept in a Cuban bank to ensure the physicians would return to the island.
The lawsuit alleges that the Cuban government kept up to 85 percent of the payments made by the Brazilian government.
“PAHO must explain how it came to be the middleman in a scheme to exploit Cuban medical workers in Brazil,” Pompeo said. “And PAHO must explain who in the organization approved a potentially illegal agreement.”
PAHO director Carissa Etienne said Tuesday on a call with journalists that the organization got involved with the Mais Medicos program “at Brazil’s request” and that the organization’s role was “subject to significant oversight, and regular audits which are accessible to member states, including the United States.”
“Nonetheless, PAHO remains committed to addressing all U.S. government’s concerns,” she added.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres: @ngameztorres