“I’m afraid that something will happen to me…that they’ll kidnap me, I don’t know.” These are the fearful words of Ramona Rodríguez, the 51-year old Cuban primary care physician stationed in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pará. She has since left her position last week to seek asylum in the United States embassy in Brasilia and has sought refuge in Brazil in an attempt to establish her residency there while Washington looks over her request. To date, 7,378 Cuban physicians have been sent to Brazil under President Dilma Rouseff’s healthcare initiative, “More Doctors,” a program that the president created in response to the massive protests in June that called for, amongst other demands, better public services. Rodríguez was the first to openly demonstrate her discontent with the Brazilian government to pay her a salary worthy of her services.
A large part of her dissatisfaction comes from her discovery of physician’s salaries from other countries that participate in the same program, who earn approximately four times the amount she does for the same work.1 She came to the Amazonian community of Pacajá in October and claims that other foreign physicians earn a monthly salary of $4,200 or more while she receives $400 for her services. Although another $600 is deposited into an account in her name in Cuba, she asserts that this substantial difference of more than $3,000 per doctor goes straight to the Cuban government, according to an agreement with the PanAmerican Organization of Health.
Rodríguez is infuriated with her measly wages, claiming, “many doctors think the same way as me, that this has been a complete robbery of our money.” This agreement with Brazil has caused much controversy on both sides. Many Brazilian doctors are accusing their Cuban colleagues of coming to work as “slaves” under inacceptable conditions. When Rodríguez decided she would flee from the country, the embassy informed her that the process would take three to four months to complete. Fearing that she would end up deported in this time period, she called a fellow Cuban doctor who put her in contact with representatives of the Brazilian Medical Association, a local organization against More Doctors, who promptly offeredher a temporary position.2
The secretary of the Brazilian Ministry of Health, Arthur Chioro, accused the opposition of More Doctors of specifically exploiting Dr. Ramona Rodríguez’s case in order to “boycott” the program from hiring more foreign physicians. “If it were up to the opposition,” Chioro asserts, “22 million Brazilians would continue without healthcare.”
Although this program has benefitted several underserved areas of Brazil whose citizens live without easy access to healthcare, other Cuban doctors have followed Rodríguez’s footsteps, with a total of 23 doctors leaving the country. The second doctor to notoriously flee from the country was Dr. Ortelio Jaime Guerra, who served in Pariquera Açu, a small town within São Paulo. Allegedly leaving Brazil without giving prior notice, he is currently living in the United States and has no intention to return to Brazil.3 The other 21 physicians have returned to their native Cuba. In the months ahead, it will be interesting to see how the discontent and subsequent departure of several Cuban doctors from Brazil shifts the dynamic between the two countries, as well as the revelations that come forth on how Cubans were received in the country.
1. Lissardy, Gerardo. "Habla la primera médica cubana que desertó en Brasil." BBC Mundo. 10 February 2014. n. pag. Web. 11 February 2014.
2. Lissardy, Gerardo. "Cubana que largou Mais Médicos teme ser 'sequestrada' no Brasil." BBC Brasil. 10 February 2014. n. pag. 11 February 2014.
3. Chao, Loretta, and Paulo Trevisani. "Second Cuban Doctor Defects in Brazil." The Wall Street Journal. 10 February 2014. n. pag. 11 February 2014.