What has Cuban doctors in Italy got to do with the New Zealand-United States relationship?

What has Cuban doctors in Italy got directly to do with Aotearoa New Zealand’s foreign policy and military relationship with the United States? In a direct sense, the answer is absolutely nothing.

But remove the word ‘directly’ and the absolutely nothing response quickly dissipates. While there is no direct or even indirect causal connection, it does raise serious ethical and moral issues.

New Zealand’s independent foreign policy position was introduced by the Labour government of the 1980s. It largely continued under successive National and Labour-led governments (Afghanistan is a question-mark under Prime Ministers Helen Clark and John Key).

Now, under the current Labour government, this independent position is slowly but discernibly diminishing. It is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the foreign and military policy of the United States on a range of matters, including the relationship with China.

Much of this distancing involves a consequential growing relationship between New Zealand and the United States-led expansionist North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). New Zealand now has an observer status at NATO meetings. Prime Minister Chris Hipkins will attend its next summit to be held in Lithuania in July.

It also involves the new Australia, United Kingdom and United States security pact (AUKUS). As its first pillar the three countries have reached an agreement on nuclear-powered submarines. Now New Zealand is  interested in joining a second ‘pillar’ of the AUKUS arrangements that focuses on cybertechnology.

Helen Clark is among those critical of this policy shift. It is discussed by investigative journalist Sam Sachdeva in Newsroom (19 April): Growing anti-AUKUS feeling.    

For further discussion see also two other articles published today – Alexander Gillespie and Richard Patman in The Conversation: Approach AUKUS security pact with caution and Geoffrey Miller in the Democracy ProjectNATO, AUKUS and the Australian connection.

Relevance of Cuban doctors

So how are Cuban doctors in Italy relevant to this shift in policy direction? From a situation of undersupply in the early 1960s, Cuba has put such a strong emphasis on training more doctors that it now has a mouth-watering per capita doctor ratio of 67 per 10,000 residents.

Cuba has the third highest doctor ratio in the world behind the much smaller countries of Qatar and Monaco and nearly double Aotearoa’s ratio. If we halved the gap we would not have the medical workforce crisis that we currently have.

Cuba trains so many doctors that every year more than 30,000  go to countries in need, mainly across Latin America and Africa. Much of this ‘exporting’ is to support countries with less developed health systems. Some of it is also to support countries, such as Pakistan and Haiti, facing natural disasters. Until late 2020 they were not sent to developed economies such as European nations.

However, this changed with the devastating impact of a new disaster in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cuban doctors were sent to Italy, a country that has a comprehensive universal health system.

Further, Italy’s economy is highly developed. It is the third-largest national economy in the European Union and the 8th-largest in the world, as measured by Gross Domestic Product. Italy is not a country that one would expect to require aid from a poorer and much smaller country to help it respond to a pandemic or other disaster.

Specifically, 51 Cuban doctors arrived in the southern Italian region of Calabria on 28 December 2020, including cardiologists, paediatricians and surgeons, to provide services in its local hospitals. Calabria is a peninsula close to Sicily and Greece. It has a population of nearly two million.

Cuban doctors in Calabria

Calabria is characterised by  extraordinary linguistic diversity. There are three historical ethnic minorities: Griko who speak a variety of Greek, Arbereshe descended from Albanian refugees between the 14th and the 18th centuries, and Occitans from Piedmont in northern Italy. Consequently the region is heaven for linguists from all over the world.

This heaven combined with three striking national parks (including Italy’s largest), many beaches, small villages, archaeological parks and ancient castles, makes the region an appealing tourist destination.

But there is also high levels of poverty with an unemployment rate in 2020 of 20%. This rate is the highest in Italy and one of the highest inside the European Union. This combination of tourism and poverty were on their own sufficient for a coronavirus to run amuck.

But then throw into the mix a precarious regional health system. In response to its financial position, since 2009 Calabria’s health system has been administered by an extraordinary commissioner appointed by the central Italian government. Since then it has struggled to provide a new administrative structure to solve the system’s long-time crisis of the Calabria’s regional healthcare system.


The state of the region’s health system in responding to Covid-19 prior to the arrival of the Cuban doctors was reported by the BBC on 30 November 2020: State of Calabria’s health system and its high Covid-19 vulnerability.

The ‘empire’ strikes back

The support provided by Cuban doctors for Italians living in Calabria has been greatly appreciated by its population. The region’s president Roberto Occhiuto publicly expressed his gratitude for these specialised doctors.

President Occhiuto described them as a tangible way of ensuring an immediate response to the needs of the region’s population by providing adequate services and guaranteeing both operational health facilities and functioning hospitals.

President Roberto Occhiuto of Calabria appreciative of support of Cuban doctors during pandemic

So what had this got to do with the ‘empire’ (aka United States)? Quite a lot actually. It is interfering with Italy’s internal affairs. Its embassy in Rome has demanded that Italy’s health ministry explain the procedures for engaging the Cuban doctors in Calabria and their remuneration. It is intimidation.

The purpose of the intimidation is to determine whether this engagement conflicts with the United States’ economic blockade against Cuba. The blockade is best described as cruel and brutal economic warfare by a huge country against a smaller and poorer neighbouring country. This warfare has been going for around 60 years.

Calabria’s Covid-19 crisis highlights in the starkest terms the contrast between Cuba and the United States. Cuba’s response was humane. The United States’ response to this humanness was inhumane.

Ethics and morality will be something for Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to think about at NATO summit

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins might want to think about the ethics and morality of this inhumane behaviour as efforts to drag New Zealand closer and closer into the empire’s clutches continue, especially when he is observing at the NATO table in July.

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