One of the most enduring features of the Cuban Revolution has been its internationalism, which sees the resources of the small Caribbean nation marshalled to provide trained doctors, literacy programmes and disaster relief beyond its borders. In addition to alleviating poverty, Cuban internationalism has helped develop bonds of solidarity between Cubans and marginalized populations, from Bolivia to Timor Leste.
The programme of medical assistance is one such example. Cuban medical personnel leave behind their families and homes to work in poor communities abroad; their labour helps to address shortages in those places and also generates income for the Cuban state. But recent events such as the planned withdrawal of 11,400 Cuban doctors from Brazil, after the newly elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro questioned the terms of their contracts and qualifications, bring into question the viability and relevance of Cuban internationalism in a reconfigured world order.
Cuban solidarity has its roots in an era of revolutions and decolonization during the 1960s and 1970s. Cuba sent soldiers to fight in anti-colonial wars in places such as Angola, organized literacy campaigns among poor and illiterate peasantry in Nicaragua, and participated in guerrilla struggles across Latin America, such as the expedition to Bolivia led by the famed Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara. There was a resurgence during the pink tide in the 2000s, as leftwing governments came to power across Latin America. Leaders like Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela entered into new agreements with Cuba, exchanging much-needed resources such as oil for the services of Cuban doctors. But many of these countries are now facing economic crises, the threat of external intervention and the rising spectre of fascism, putting these programmes in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Cuba has problems of its own. The weakening of its leftist allies has created renewed economic hardship, making some doctors less willing or able to offer their services for motives of solidarity alone. Cuban doctors working abroad could earn between $1,000 and $1,500 a month compared to the $30 they would receive working at home. But they know these funds only add up to a quarter of what the Cuban state receives in payment for their services, and the salaries are often not enough to compensate them for leaving behind families and young children; or working in dangerous and difficult conditions in remote areas, like treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. A few years prior to the election of Bolsonaro, about 150 Cuban doctors in Brazil filed lawsuits in Brazilian courts demanding to earn their full salaries like other foreign medical personnel, rather than working as agents of the Cuban state.
The tensions faced by Cuban doctors point to broader contradictions emerging between values of solidarity and economic self-interest. It may be that an internationalism truly grounded in generosity and mutual respect was only possible under rare political conditions, such as the revolutionary moments of the 1960s and the 2000s, often undergirded by a commodity boom. But the history and successes of Cuban internationalism have given us an alternative to the model of Western foreign state aid tied to interventionist and military objectives. It may still provide a moral compass for our turbulent times.
Sujatha Fernandes (@sujathatf) is a Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney. She is the author of several books, including Cuba Represent! And Close to the Edge. Her latest book is curated stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling.