The Cuban government’s offer of free medical training scholarships to “low-income Americans” is based on “false medical claims” and “requires [students’] dedication to communism,” according to an American physicians group and former program attendees.

For years, Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s “doctor diplomacy” — a program of exporting Cuban health care abroad — has sent doctors to many countries and played host to health “tourists” while Cuba developed medications and drugs to treat some of the developing world’s worst health-care problems.

Indeed, Cuban doctors now work free of charge in some of Central America’s most remote villages, many of which have never had regular medical attention. Also, Cuba has more than a thousand doctors in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Honduras and Haiti, and has sent them to Africa as well.

Perhaps as a way of polishing his image internationally, Castro took his program to a new level in 1999 by opening the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, “after 18 Latin American governments selected and sent 1,929 of their most promising students — evenly divided between men and women — from mostly rural, disadvantaged backgrounds,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported March 9, 2000.

Successful applicants chosen to attend the school receive what Cuban officials say is a “regular medical doctor degree” after six years of training. The education and housing are provided free of charge.

Students live at the school, which has a theater, dormitories, 28 teaching laboratories and a post office. They get uniforms, food and a small stipend for expenses on weekends. After remaining there for two-and-a-half years, they are then integrated into the Cuban system for the rest of their medical education, the Inquirer said.

And while some U.S. and Latin American officials have praised Cuba’s medical system as one that rivals American health care, critics say there are substantial loopholes in the program that include, among other things, a requirement that students pledge allegiance to communism and the Cuban Marxist form of government.

According to a report on the “doctor diplomacy” program, written by former Cuban medical program attendees and published by the Medical Sentinel, the official journal of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, “in addition to ideological and political conflicts, there are compelling public health reasons for rejecting” Cuba’s claims.

The authors of the report, AAPS said, “cite public documents that reveal that Cuban medical schools require that a physician ‘must become a communist and he or she must pledge to improve his or her skills as a communist.’ Cuban medical school graduates must also ‘swear to be like [Cuban communist revolutionary] Che Guevara.'”

Also, the physician’s group said, Castro’s program is “based on false medical claims,” and that despite glowing reports, “Cuban medical training is poor in comparison to the U.S.”

Last summer, Castro made an “offer that could not be refused” to “provide Cuban doctors and free medical training to the U.S.,” AAPS said.

Moreover, the group asserted, the offer — which was made last June by Castro to Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mich., and members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were visiting Cuba — is being taken seriously by some U.S. lawmakers.

Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, D-Texas, has embraced the program, and in a Jan. 25 statement called on eligible district constituents to consider applying for the program.

“The Latin American School of Medical Sciences is recognized throughout Latin America as a leading school in general medicine,” Rodriguez said. “For many of South Texas’ brightest, the prohibitive cost of higher education rules out advanced studies — especially in medicine.

“The Latin American School is an excellent tuition-free alternative and I encourage those who are interested to seriously consider this great opportunity,” he said. “The Cuban embargo should not stop humanitarian efforts to ease pain and suffering at home and abroad.

“I am excited about this outstanding educational opportunity. It’s a program that, at the very least, will benefit our students and the communities they will later serve,” he added.

Also, Luis Mariano Fernandez, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section at the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C., met with local upstate New York officials last Wednesday to push the program.

Fernandez met with Amsterdam, N.Y., Mayor John M. Duchessi, Jr. “for a breakfast at Centro Civico of Amsterdam, Inc. to discuss the offer being made to high school students in disadvantaged neighborhoods across the United States,” the local newpaper, The Recorder, said.

“The idea of the scholarship came out of a visit from the Congressional Black Caucus to Cuba,” Fernandez confirmed to the New York paper.

The Caucus, which has no Republican members and is currently chaired by Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., is supportive of lifting most trade sanctions against Cuba.

Fernandez said Castro’s offer is being promoted by the Caucus and another group, Pastors for Peace, a group of churches that have provided medicine, medical supplies and other related gear through humanitarian efforts to Cuba for years, the Recorder said.

“The only condition is that after they finish their study in Cuba after six years, that [graduating students] go back to the community and work with the community,” Fernandez said. “This is basically the philosophy that we’ve followed with students from other Latin American countries.”

He added that Cuba was prepared to offer 500 scholarships to students in upstate New York.

Ladan Alomar, executive director of Centrol Civico, also pledged support.

“We’re going to do the best we can to utilize this opportunity,” Alomar said. “This is really going to open doors to both sides.

“We’ll be able to travel either way and get an understanding of the cultures and governments,” she said. “The world is too small to [have] barriers.”

Other critics call the program a well-orchestrated piece of political propaganda, alleging that to study at a Cuban university or college, applicants are required to show a detailed list of revolutionary activities — including participation in demonstrations against the U.S. government and its policies, as well as a disclaimer about being a member of any religious group or organization.

School officials denied any political or ideological underpinnings as prerequisites to attendance.

“We don’t teach politics, just medicine,” Nancy Nunez, director of the school’s foreign affairs department, told the Inquirer last year. “We hope they come out of this course with the same human sensibility as the Cubans who spend time in other countries. We hope they don’t see medicine as merchandise, but as humanitarian.”

AAPS disagrees, citing public and research documents — as well as statements from those who have served in the “doctor diplomacy” programs.

“Medical students who accept Castro’s offer of free medical training may find themselves indentured serfs to Cuba’s communism,” the group said. “Regulations require that ‘medical doctors must serve 3 to 5 years in designated areas on the island of Cuba before they are considered for permission to leave the island.'”

More alarming, the group said, was that “even if [students] are ever allowed to return to the U.S., they may not be able to shake the influence. The physicians serving in these units are essentially under surveillance all the time and any change in their plans not consistent with the orders given them from Havana invariably leads to the involvement of police or paramilitary security forces.”

The AAPS said the training program is also a huge moneymaker for the Cuban government. “Doctors [exported abroad] generate tens of millions of dollars for the Castro regime,” even though many earn only about one dollar a day and, as the Inquirer said, may have to sell trinkets and liquor on the side to make ends meet.

“Cuba’s so-called ‘doctor diplomacy’ may have begun in the manner of an assistance program for guerilla movements” some 40 years ago, AAPS said, “but soon turned into big business for Havana.”

The group said the Castro regime takes in $1.2 million a month from Zimbabwe alone under the program. “A very small fraction of this goes to pay the physicians themselves and their families in the island,” said the AAPS report.

Additionally, the physician group said Cuba’s claims of superior medical outcomes “compared to the U.S. are false,” noting that lower infant mortality rates claimed by Havana are based on flawed comparison studies and are actually “about 4-5 times higher than that of the U.S. rate.”

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