Assertions by the United States Department of State in its last Trafficking in Persons report that some of the Cuban medical professionals contracted by the Jamaican Government might be in the island under duress from their own Government have been flatly dismissed by the republic's envoy to Jamaica, Fermîn Gabriel Quiñones Sanchéz, as "lies" and part of a "dirty", politically motivated campaign against his country.
"The inclusion of Cuba in this illegal list is part of the US campaign to denigrate Cuban cooperation. We are not here to work in private clinics. We are here to work in the most problematic neighbourhoods and public clinics in Jamaica," Ambassador Quiñones Sanchéz said.
"I cannot believe that more than 300 Cuban doctors, nurses, and technicians working in Jamaica have been forced to come to Jamaica. They are lying. You cannot maintain more than 300 persons under this kind of set-up of slavery, invigilating them, searching them, or whatever," the diplomat told the Jamaica Observer during a recent interview.
"They are here voluntarily, in solidarity and working elbow to elbow with the Jamaican doctors saving lives," he said and argued that the State Department's claim is part of Washington's effort to reinforce the US economic and financial blockade against Cuba.
"It is part of this campaign. Cuba has a zero-tolerance approach to trafficking in persons," he said, adding, "there are Cuban doctors in nearly all the nations of the Caribbean."
The US State Department report's reference to Jamaica stated, "The Government reported contracting Cuban medical professionals during the year, but authorities did not acknowledge these workers as being at high risk for forced labour, despite ongoing concerns by international experts that the Government of Cuba may have compelled some of them to work".
"Among the Cuban medical professionals the Government contracted, some may have been forced to work by the Cuban Government," it said further.
But the Cuban ambassador said the inference was just another tactic in what is a long-waged war.
"Historically the relationship between Cuba and the US has been one of confrontation, for many reasons, and the main reason is that the US Government, for [many] years, has been trying to own or possess Cuba for political and economic domination. One of the most recent accusations of the Government of the United States is regarding the lack of action by Cuba in tackling trafficking in persons. First, those lists are illegal, unilateral, and the United States Government does not have any kind of moral or political capability to do this," he argued.
"We know very well, and everybody knows that the Government of the United States is one of the governments that has been promoting trafficking in persons in the world. And it is one of the countries that has done less to fight trafficking in persons, and this is said by US civil society and organisations," Ambassador Quiñones Sanchéz said.
"It is notable to those organisations how children in the United States are mistreated and how people are brought to the US for prostitution. It is immoral what they are doing, trying to accuse Cuba. I've been reading the reports but sometimes we are tired because it is always the same. It is a pity that the US Government has been saying the Cuban medical cooperation is a trafficking in persons exercise when everybody knows that Cuba has been doing this sort of corroboration with many countries around the world for more than 60 years," the diplomat stated.
"This year is marking, for us, the 60th anniversary of the first Medical Brigade of Cuba working in Algeria. More than 160 countries around the world have benefited from this kind of cooperation. I cannot tell you how many millions of lives have been saved," he said.
In referencing the work of Cuban doctors in the fight against Ebola in Africa he said, "The Cuban doctors who are members of the Medical Brigade have been received by the World Health Organization. I can't understand how those very same doctors could be included in such a list. Worldwide it is recognised that the Cuban doctors played an extremely important job in Africa to stop the spread of Ebola."
He noted further that during the COVID-19 pandemic Cuban doctors were working on request in more than 40 countries.
"More than 56 brigades of Cuban doctors were working in different parts of the world. When the Jamaican Government requested support from Cuba to fight COVID-19 the Cuban Government did not hesitate to send more than 100 doctors into the country to support the Jamaican population," Ambassador Quiñones Sanchéz noted.
Cuban doctors have been working in Jamaica since 1976. Yearly they perform some two, to three million consultations for Jamaican patients and carry out 3,000 plus surgeries. The cooperation includes the Cuban Eye Care programme from which many Jamaicans have benefited and thousands are still waiting.
Responding to claims that the doctors do not earn full salaries and are viewed as agents of the Cuban State and have to repatriate the lion's share of their salaries Ambassador Quiñones Sanchéz said, "They have a salary in Cuba, they get 100 per cent of their salary. And they are also receiving a huge amount of money working wherever they are as part of the agreement signed with the Cuban Government.
"When they come to Jamaica it doesn't mean they lose their job in Cuba. Can you imagine you are working in the Cayman Islands, and you are continuing to receive your salary here? Cuban doctors are paid under the bilateral agreement here, but they are receiving another amount where they are working in Cuba. Sometimes they work on 100 per cent volunteer basis like, for example in Haiti, and nobody is forced to go," the ambassador said.
"Nobody can tell you we are not receiving a salary. I know that their campaign is to say that the Cuban Government is earning everything, and the doctors are getting only a part of their salary. That is not the truth. This is part of a political campaign to destroy the Cuban Medical Brigade," he insisted.
"Are we terrorists sending doctors to cure people or to keep populations alive? Don't tell me that. There is only one objective — to create more problems for the Cuban economy," he said.
He noted that some doctors who sued the Cuban Government could have been politically motivated to do so and given benefits.
"Sometimes they create special programmes to provide benefits to the Cuban doctors for defecting. They are receiving special benefits. They are lying when they say they are not receiving their salaries," the diplomat stated.
"Cubans working in Jamaica have the benefit of bringing their family to vacation in Jamaica [paid for by the Cuban Government]. They go to Cuba for vacation every year under the agreement. Somebody under a trafficking arrangement would be going on vacation? In the summer, hundreds of children come for vacation with their families. This would not be done by someone working under a slave condition," he added.
"It is a dirty, very dirty campaign of the US against Cuba," Ambassador Quiñones Sanchéz reiterated.
Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton, responding to questions by the Observer on the issue recently, said, "We have had a very long-standing relationship with Cuba which results in a contract, where we go to Cuba, we interview and we identify and select health workers where we have a major shortage; that is an ongoing practice and the truth is, our health system depends on it in a major way because we lose so many of our people primarily to the United States and, to some extent, the United Kingdom and Canada".
Noting that the arrangement "has worked well", the health minister said, "I am not an investigator, it is a government-to-government arrangement and I'm sure the Government is not going to willingly engage in a scenario where we classify this kind of transfer as forced labour".
Adding that the issue raised in the report has been discussed at the multilateral level in the halls of the Pan American Health Organization, Dr Tufton said, "The mobility of health-care workers is perhaps at its peak because of major shortages, and countries continue to establish partnerships where possible where there is an excess supply and there is a major demand. We have benefited from the relationship with Cuba over an extended period of time.
"I don't have any evidence to suggest that that is the case, and I am sure this Government would be hesitant to get into that kind of arrangement. I think the relationship with Cuba is strong; it has been very positive. And in terms of the health space, we need it because we don't have [enough] people to treat our patients," he added.