BUENOS AIRES — Cuba often charges for its renown medical services abroad by bartering with the respective wealth or commodity of the country where its medics are sent. In Europe it is paid in euros currency, while in Venezuela, its healthcare missions are remunerated with crude oil, a resource in constant shortage on the island. Now, in the face of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis, sources tell Clarín that Cuban officials are in talks with the government of President Alberto Fernández about sending doctors to Argentina in exchange for food.

These would be sent especially to boost medical cadres fighting the epidemic in and around the capital of Buenos Aires, though it has already prompted opposition among local medical associations and in different social sectors.

This "swap" is not new. In 2004 under the late President Néstor Kirchner, the Cuban government run by brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro proposed exchanging $100 million in Cuban medicines for the same amount of Argentine foodstuffs. A year earlier, Argentina's then foreign minister, Rafael Bielsa, discussed with Cuba the possibility of canceling some of Cuba's debts to Argentina, with talk of $50-million tranches whereby poorer Argentines would receive free medical treatment in Cuban hospitals.

The Buenos Aires province owns 60% share of the GDP of the country's prized livestock, and today sectors in the government remain interested in renewing a debt-for-doctors option with Cuba, though progress is not without obstacles. The idea comes from the Vice-President Cristina Kirchner, who spent all of 2019 and early 2020 traveling back and forth to Havana, where her daughter Florencia is being treated for health issues.

With Cuba, there is an added ideological dimension.

Cuba's debt to Argentina was incurred in 1973 when the Health Minister José B. Gelbard lent Fidel Castro almost $1.3 billion. In 2017 the Argentine Bank of Foreign Trade and Investment stated in a report commissioned by CADAL, a foundation focused on good governance, that by then Cuba owed Argentina $2.6 billion including capital and interests. Some place the debt today at some $4 billion.

As previously reported in Clarin, the provincial government of Buenos Aires led by Axel Kicillof is planning on inviting between a dozen and 250 Cuban physicians requested by Buenos Aires health authorities. This reportedly will only happen if contagion figures supersede a peak figure and the province is hard pushed to cope with patient numbers.

Kicillof's plans were recently confirmed by both the Health and Foreign Ministries. The mayor of the town of Pehuajó, Pablo Zurro, formally asked Kicillof for Cuban doctors on April 21, while the province of Chaco is contemplating a similar move. Their arrival is permitted within the emergency presidential decree allowing use of foreign medical staff without prior confirmation of qualifications.

But various sectors in Argentina, notably doctors, are opposed to foreign recruitment. With Cuba, there is an added ideological dimension: the island nation has long mixed business and medical aid with propaganda, with Central Medical Cooperation Unit sending doctors around the world for the past six decades as proof of the Communist regime's efficiency and humanity. In recent years, with deteriorating economic conditions, these medical missions have turned into the country's leading source of foreign exchange earnings.



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