HAVANA, Cuba – Cuba has decided to allow doctors who deserted while on foreign missions to return home without punishment or loss of position in the state health care system, the government said Friday.
The action comes amid worries of a brain drain of Cuban medical professionals as the Communist-ruled island loosens long-time restrictions on emigration.
Doctors in particular have faced stringent restrictions on travel since the 1960s, and stiff sanctions awaited those who deserted from government-sponsored missions in foreign countries.
Under the new policy announced by the Health Ministry, doctors who deserted while on foreign missions are being welcomed back. They “have the opportunity, if they so desire, to rejoin our National Health System, and will be guaranteed work placement in conditions similar to those they had before,” a ministry statement said.
Likewise, Cuban doctors who have emigrated under a more open policy introduced in 2013 can also return, although with no guarantee of working for the state system. In the past, deserters and emigres alike were barred from visiting the country for periods of five to 10 years, or even for life in some cases.
An estimated 25,000 doctors and a similar number of health professionals currently serve in international missions in 68 countries. But the missions have been plagued by complaints about comparatively low pay and defections.
In recent weeks, about 100 medical deserters turned up in Colombia seeking to travel to the United States under a program adopted in 2006 during the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Although better off than most of the Cuban population, doctors make much less than their Latin American counterparts. But the international missions allow them to make 10 to 20 times their normal salary, which in Cuba averaged 1,600 pesos, or a little more than $50 a month, last year.
Cuba insists it still has one of the highest doctor-patient ratios in the world. The island receives about $10 billion a year for the medical services it provides other countries, mainly Brazil and Venezuela, making it the top source of hard currency revenues.