US blockade stalled payment to Cuban Ebola doctors

News from Cuba | Monday, 15 December 2014

Associated Press and The Big Story report

HAVANA (AP) - Cuba had to cover food and lodging expenses for dozens of its doctors fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone after the U.S. embargo delayed payments from the World Health Organization, an official at the U.N. agency said.

U.S. officials as high as Secretary of State John Kerry have praised the Cuban effort against Ebola. But the longstanding embargo affects virtually all dealings with Cubans, even for banks outside the U.S., because they depend on dollar transfers through U.S. institutions.

Jose Luis Di Fabio, the health agency's representative for Cuba, told The Associated Press it had to request special licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department to transfer money to the doctors in Africa.

The licenses were eventually granted and the government-employed doctors only recently received payments dating as far back as October, he said.

"The fact that they're Cubans greatly limited the funds transfers and the payment," Di Fabio said. "It's not that the WHO didn't want to pay, it's that they weren't able to."

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment Friday. Cuban officials in Havana did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Cuba has sent 256 medical workers to Africa, with 165 in Sierra Leone and the rest in Guinea and Liberia. Cuban doctors generally receive salaries of about $70 a month, with some specialists earning more, but the Cubans in Africa are receiving $250 a day in direct payments from WHO that are meant to cover their food and lodging and provide a margin of extra compensation.

The embargo issue did not affect the state salaries, which are paid to banks inside Cuba, only the extra payments from WHO.

Di Fabio said there were relatively minor delays in opening accounts for the doctors in Guinea and Liberia, but those have been resolved.

In Guinea, where the current Ebola outbreak started, 37 Cuban doctors, nurses and epidemiologists have not yet received two or three weeks of immersion training at an Ebola treatment center working with patients, the last step necessary for them to go to work in the field. There has also been a delay in deploying Cuban doctors in Sierra Leone, with only about 60 of 165 Cubans there in the field, said Dr. Carlos Castro, leader of the Cuban doctors in Guinea.

Di Fabio said there was a clear need for "better coordination of efforts."

He said that in Liberia, about 30 Cuban doctors are working closely and efficiently with U.S. doctors in a center built by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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