The doctor was in an operating theatre when the call came through from his wife: "He's gone, he's no longer there." "We always call him 'he'. 'He who shall not be named.' Like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels," Dr Barbaro Monzon-Torres says, grinning across the table in his office at Johannesburg's South Rand Hospital.
The doctor was in an operating theatre when the call came through from his wife: “He’s gone, he’s no longer there.”
“We always call him ‘he’. ‘He who shall not be named.’ Like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels,” Dr Barbaro Monzon-Torres says, grinning across the table in his office at Johannesburg’s South Rand Hospital.
“He” is Fidel Castro, whose decision to resign as Cuba’s leader earlier this week has reignited hopes in the 43-year-old surgeon and father of two of being reunited soon with his beloved island in the Caribbean.
“I was very happy,” says Monzon-Torres, once a poster boy for Cuba’s superlative healthcare system, now a self-declared “enemy of the system, mentally psychologically and ideologically” who is barred from visiting his homeland.
Monzon-Torres is one of more than 1 000 doctors lent by Castro to former communist countries in Africa over the past 30 years to bolster their ailing health systems—a move hailed as high points in Castro’s legacy.
The Ciego de Avila native was among the first of more than 600 doctors sent to South Africa starting in 1996 to help alleviate the shortage of doctors in then president Nelson Mandela’s young rainbow nation.
Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola were among the other recipients of Cuban doctors, who were invariably deployed to what Monzon-Torres calls “the bundus” (“the sticks” in local slang) where they helped reverse the brain drain caused by the exodus of African doctors to the West.
His first posting was Mokopane Hospital in Limpopo province, South Africa’s poorest.
“I saw things there I never saw before,” says Monzon-Torres, recalling patients in remote villages going up to 10 days with acute appendicitis before seeing a doctor, and calling in an army helicopter to fetch a woman with a ruptured aneurism from her shack.
Lure of money
Because South Africa was one of the only countries to pay the Cuban doctors directly—other countries paid the Cuban government and gave the doctors a small stipend—it was a sought-after destination for young doctors like Monzon-Torres struggling to raise a family on $22 a month. In South Africa, he was paid at least 30 times that.
But the agreement was restrictive. The Cuban government pocketed 30% of his salary and barred his access to the bulk of a further 27%, ordering him to keep it in a Cuban bank account “for when you got back”. Cuba also ordered South Africa to hand over his pension contributions for safekeeping.
In 2001, he visited Cuba for the last time. The following year Monzon-Torres, his anaesthetist wife and five others, dubbed the Limpopo Seven, took new jobs in South Africa, out of the Cuban system.
The South African government, following complaints from Cuba, tried but ultimately failed to block their employment.
Dozens of others followed their example and obtained local contracts or left for Spain after getting their families out of Cuba. All are now labelled dissidents and barred from travelling to the island.
But many stuck with the bilateral agreement or returned to Cuba after serving out their three-year renewable contracts.
In Mozambique, South Africa’s impoverished neighbour whose communist past is still evident in its continuing ban on private land ownership, several Cuban doctors have been “lost” to top-paying international NGOs.
The former Portuguese colony has been receiving Cuban doctors since 1976, a year after independence, and now has 307 around the country.
Public-sector wages in Mozambique are so low it is one of few countries in the world with more of its doctors working abroad than at home.
But three Cuban specialists in the capital’s Maputo Central Hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, were adamant: “We are here to help the poorest of the poor.”
“The revolution will not end with Fidel’s announcement of stepping down as supreme leader. We will stick to our commitments on his behalf and on behalf of Che Guevara,” one doctor said.
If money is not the draw in Mozambique, “a common Latin culture, a sister language and the same communist background” are.
Monzon Torres, on the other hand, despite appreciating middle-class comforts in South Africa, admits: “We have never found true happiness in South Africa, not like in Cuba. If I could make a ton of money, I could give that ton of money to change the system to be able to go back.”—Sapa-dpa