Havana (AFP) - Cuba's pledge to deploy a 165-strong army of doctors and nurses to help fight the Ebola outbreak is the latest example of the Communist country's decades-old tradition of "medical diplomacy."
Since 1960, when Cuba dispatched a team of doctors to help with the aftermath of an earthquake in Chile, the Caribbean island has sent more than 135,000 medical staff to all corners of the globe.
The latest batch being sent to help in west Africa's Ebola crisis are part of a 50,000-strong foreign legion of Cuban doctors and healthcare workers spread across 66 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, according to Cuba's Health Ministry.
Cuban Health Minister Roberto Morales Ojeda told reporters in Geneva on Friday some 62 doctors and 103 nurses were being sent to Sierra Leone to tackle the outbreak.
World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan welcomed the Cuban aid, the largest offer of a foreign medical team from a single country during the outbreak.
"Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission," said Chan. "Human resources are clearly our most important need."
Morales said members of the team had "previously participated in post-catastrophe situations" and had all volunteered for the six-month mission, which begins in early October.
- 'Foreign policy cornerstone' -
"Medical diplomacy, the collaboration between countries to simultaneously produce health beneﬁts and improve relations, has been a cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy since the outset of the revolution ﬁfty years ago," said US researcher Julie Feinsilver in a study for Georgetown University.
"It has helped Cuba garner symbolic capital -- goodwill, inﬂuence, and prestige -- well beyond what would have been possible for a small, developing country, and it has contributed to making Cuba a player on the world stage," Feinsilver wrote in her study "Fifty Years of Cuba's Medical Diplomacy: From Idealism to Pragmatism".
"In recent years, medical diplomacy has been instrumental in providing considerable material capital -- aid, credit, and trade -- to keep the revolution aﬂoat."
Cuba's medical diplomacy accelerated after the devastation wrought by Hurricanes George and Mitch across the Caribbean in 1998. In the aftermath of the disaster, Cuba sent some 25,000 doctors and health workers to 32 nations in the region.
In 2004, former President Fidel Castro and late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched "Mission Miracle," a program offering free eye surgery that has benefited some 2.8 million people across 35 countries, according to Cuban official sources.
- Earthquake assistance -
At the same time, Cuba's "medical brigades" have helped victims from devastating earthquakes in numerous countries including Algeria, Mexico, Armenia and Pakistan.
Cuba has also trained several thousand doctors and nurses from no fewer than 121 developing nations.
The biggest deployment has seen 30,000 Cuban health professionals sent to oil-rich Venezuela, a key regional ally.
In Brazil, meanwhile, some 11,456 Cubans are working in hard-hit areas suffering from staffing shortages.
Together with educational and sporting services, the export of medical professionals is worth around $10 billion annually to Cuba, making it the most important source of income for the island, outstripping money earned from foreign remittances and exports of nickel.
Yet while the qualifications and dedication of Cuba's foreign legion are regularly lauded by countries benefiting from their services and organizations such as the WHO, they are not always viewed so positively by local health workers.
Trade unions and some politicians in Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Honduras have criticized the "army in white coats" sent by Cuba.
At the same time, Havana has also been criticized for withholding too big a chunk of the salaries of workers employed overseas.
Despite the thousands of health workers abroad, Cuba's domestic healthcare remains one of the best staffed networks in the world, with 82,065 doctors, one for every 137 people, according to the National Statistics Office.