Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 September 2014



7:39 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Cuban overseas aid and assistance stands in sharp contrast to aid and development under the Abbott government. At a time when Australian aid must meet the national interest test, Cuba is stepping up its assistance, particularly in health and education programs in low-income countries. The responses of our two countries is playing out in an interesting way with regard to the Ebola epidemic. This week, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, failed to respond to Medecins Sans Frontieres' request for on-the-ground assistance. Meanwhile, Cuba is sending nearly 300 more doctors and nurses to West Africa to help fight the Ebola epidemic. This brings the number to 461 Cuban medical personnel undertaking this work in West Africa. Cuba has about 2,200 doctors in 32 African nations, and this is part of their extensive work in bringing health professionals to low-income countries.

One of the setbacks for overseas aid with DFAT taking over AusAID is that Australian programs with Cuba have stalled. AusAID funded the Instituto de Cooperacion Social Integrare to assess the potential for a bilateral Australia-Cuba agreement on Pacific health programs. This could, and should, have been the start of some fantastic projects. The report into potential Cuban-Australian medical cooperation in Australia, I understand, is still unpublished. The former Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, described the potential 'to leverage our presence with their expertise and their work to see if we can do something really good'. He was referring to the Cuban expertise. In 2009, the Australian and Cuban foreign ministries signed a memorandum of understanding for an agenda for closer bilateral cooperation between the two countries. The memorandum of understanding identified its priorities for closer cooperation, expanding people-to-people links, aid cooperation and encouraging closer ties in science, technology, sport and culture. It was noted that significant progress has been made on this bilateral agenda. On aid cooperation, AusAID and its Cuban counterpart signed an agreement in 2011 facilitating cooperation on the delivery of medical services to Haiti. This largely, I understand, has been lost because of the changes in how aid is organised in this country now. They have been some very important programs that can make a difference to people's lives in lower income countries.

Then we come closer to home, to East Timor. This is where Cuba has been training students for free to become doctors and other health professionals. Hamish McDonald, writing in TheSydney Morning Herald on 23 and 24 July 2011, said:

On the face of it, Fidel Castro seems to have done a miraculous thing: delinking the medical profession from the goal of making large amounts of money.

With these programs, it is very interesting to look at the social indicators in Cuba, which in many cases are much higher than those in the United States. Hamish McDonald goes on to state:

Compared with other Third World countries with good universities like India and South Africa, it—

that is, Cuba—

has a relatively small brain drain of trained medicos and nurses to rich countries.

The work in East Timor has been outstanding with up to 300 Cuban health professionals on two-year missions. These doctors form the backbone of East Timor's fledgling public health service.

I recently had the opportunity at an event organised by the CFMEU to meet a young Cuban woman, Aili Labanino-Cardoso, the daughter of Ramon Labanino, who is currently serving a long prison sentence in the United States for fighting against terrorism. He will not be released until 2024. He is one of what have become known as the Cuban Five. They were living in Florida, gathering information about the activities of extreme right-wing Cuban-American organisations which were carrying out terrorist assassinations when they were arrested by the FBI in 1998. Many of them were given double life sentences, and some of them are— (Time expired)