'We have been talking about the possibility of a pandemic since the beginning of the century, and Cuba has its army of white coats prepared'
Cuban doctors are back in global demand as overwhelmed national health care services tap their crisis experience as they battle with the coronavirus pandemic.
Communist-run Havana has long used its "white coat diplomacy" as an arm of its foreign policy but has fallen foul of a changing political landscape in right-leaning Latin America and the Trump White House in Washington.
But with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world, Cuba's doctors are seen as a key resource for overwhelmed national health care systems.
"We have been talking about the possibility of a pandemic since the beginning of the century, and Cuba has its army of white coats prepared," said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban professor at Holy Names University in California.
The ideals of the Cuban revolution of the 1950s mean free health care and education have long been considered societal pillars of the socialist island.
"At the end of the Cold War, Cuba developed this capacity and therefore it's logical that it became a very important tool in its foreign policy," Lopez-Levy told AFP.
Doctors to 14 nations
Italy, with more than 17,000 Covid-19 deaths, is one of 14 nations that so far have called on Cuba to help out their beleaguered health care systems.
Havana sent its Henry Reeve humanitarian brigade, named after an American combatant in Cuba's war of independence, that specializes in natural disasters and epidemics.
Their arrival was greeted with applause as they filed into an Italian airport.
Havana sent a 39-strong team of medics to Andorra after the principality reported that scores of its own doctors were quarantined.
Cuba has also sent teams to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Grenada, Suriname, Jamaica and Belize.
And France has now authorized Cuban doctors to work in some of its overseas territories in order to fill the gaps in hard-hit local health care systems.
"The coronavirus has provided Cuba with a new opportunity to export medical services," said Jorge Duany, head of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Cuba earned $6.3 billion from its medical program in 2018. But since then, revenues have taken a hit, with Latin America swinging back to the right, and Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and El Salvador all cutting contracts with Havana and sending the medical brigades home.
Cuba, which has suffered almost six decades of crippling US sanctions, blames Washington for campaigning to discredit an initiative that has sent more than 400,000 health workers to 164 countries.
The US accuses the Cuban government of exploiting the medics program for cash, saying 75 percent of their salary is withheld by Havana in a modern-day form of "slavery".
And US ally Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who kicked out 8,000 Cuban health workers last year, accused Havana of using the program to plant intelligence agents in the country.
"#Cuba offers its international medical missions to those afflicted with #COVID-19 only to make up the money it lost when countries stopped participating in the abusive program," the US State Department said on Twitter two weeks ago.
Host countries seeking Cuba's help over the pandemic "should scrutinize agreements and end labor abuses," it warned.
Still, the program survives. As of last month, Havana still had 28,729 health workers posted in 59 countries.
"Under the US policy of maximum economic pressure on Cuba, the rejection of the medical program could be interpreted as another strategy to deprive the Cuban government of material resources," said Duany.
Cuba maintains its doctors program "from a purely humanitarian motivation," Havana political analyst Carlos Alzugaray said.
"The diplomatic and economic benefits are a plus."