February 10, 2003

Cuban doctors in SA see red

                   Christi Naude

                    Pietermaritzburg - Cuban doctors have lodged complaints of gross human rights
                    violations with the Human Rights Commission in regard to the
                    government-to-government agreement between Cuba and South Africa.

                    One of the alleged human rights violations includes the dismissal of seven
                    Limpopo doctors, which was to beopposed in the Johannesburg labour
                    court on Monday with an applicationagainst the department of health to
                    honour their contracts.

                    In what the doctors believe is "a revenge attack" after a Special Assignment
                    programme about their plight in December, two Pietermaritzburg specialists were
                    told to expect dismissal letters, while seven Cuban doctors in Limpopo allegedly
                    were given the chop on Friday.

                    In a meeting on Thursday, described as "no match for the Spanish inquisition",
                    Cuban officials allegedly told Dr Mario Menchero, a Cuban orthopaedic surgeon at
                    Grey's Hospital, Pietermaritzburg, that he was a "traitor" who did not deserve to be
                    on the Cuban programme.

                    The meeting came after Menchero's cancellation of his Cuban Communist Party
                    membership after he openly said he could "no longer support the party's principles.

                    Cuban house confiscated

                    An Edendale surgeon received a similar threat when he refused to send his
                    15-year-old daughter back to Cuba in January - a requirement of a new contract,
                    given to the doctors in December, last year.

                    Besides the looming dismissal, further action was taken against the doctor.

                    The doctor said: "They confiscated my house in Cuba and my savings account, with
                    my pension money, has been frozen. My daughter is very confused," the doctor
                    said, adding that he would not consider splitting his family.

                    Of the 10 children who were forced to return in January after their 15th birthdays,
                    only one reached Cuba.

                    Three parents refused to send their children back, four families absconded in
                    Spain, one child was "late" and missed the plane and another had "a fit" and was
                    given one month to recover.

                    The seven doctors in Limpopo are still recovering from the shock of being given 48
                    hours to leave the hospitals where they have been working.

                    Some refuse to send their children back

                    One of the doctors in Makopane (Potgietersrus), who lives on the hospital
                    premises, was given 24 hours to vacate his house.

                    According to a letter by the Limpopo health department, the doctors "opted out of
                    the Cuba/South Africa agreement ... opting out of the agreement has implications
                    on relations between the republics of Cuba and South Africa."

                    The doctors said they were being "punished" because they either applied for
                    permanent South African residence, or for requesting not to go to on the annual
                    compulsory holdiday to Cuba, or refusing to send their children back after they
                    turned 15.

                    One of the dismissed doctors apparently previously defected to Spain so that he
                    wouldn't lose his South African wife, after a threat that his passport would be
                    confiscated in Cuba.

                    A letter by Cuban co-ordinator Dr Jaime Davis, of which the Witness has a copy,
                    informed the Limpopo health department that the Cuban health minister wanted
                    these doctors out of the programme because they had asked for permanent

                    No Cuban doctor, married to a Cuban spouse, should be granted permanent

                    About 200 doctors have absconded

                    Sibani Mngadi, spokesperson for Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang,
                    denied that Cuba had threatened to cancel the agreement because they were
                    losing doctors, who applied for permanent residence or absconded to other

                    Apparently, close to 200 doctors have absconded since 1996.

                    Mngadi said both parties recommitted themselves at the end of last year.

                    "The provinces need more Cuban doctors. Requests from all provinces last month
                    totalled 361 doctors and specialists needed in addition to about 450 already
                    working in South Africa. "KwaZulu-Natal, alone, has asked for more than 120."

                    In a letter to an Inkatha Freedom Party MP, Tshabalala-Msimang recently refused
                    to reinstate a Cuban doctor in the Eastern Cape after he had been allegedly
                    dismissed and thrown into the Umtata prision.

                    She said he was employed under the SA/Cuba agreement and her approval of his
                    request to be reinstated would compromise the relations between the two countries.

                    Davis declined to comment, despite a fax and a follow-up call.

                    The "dismissal" of experienced doctors in South Africa, which thousands of South
                    African doctors are opting to quit, will leave critical gaps.

                    According to Dr Elmarie Pieterse, the dismissal of her specialist physician husband
                    will have serious implications for the intensive-care unit at Warmbaths Hospital in
                    Bela Bela.

                    "There are two patients connected to ventilators. With no other experienced doctor
                    to run the facility, it may as well close down."