2 February 2021

Why has Jeremy Corbyn nominated a forced labour programme for the Nobel Peace Prize?

By Peter Young

Is there a less suitable candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize than the forced labour programme of a communist state that is used to fund repression, support narco-terrorism and prop up like-minded dictators abroad?

Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and a whole host of hard left Labour MPs from nominating Cuba’s notorious ‘slave doctor’ programme for the prize. Other Labour nominators include Momentum maestro Jon Lansman and union baron Len McCluskey, along with all seven Sinn Fein MPs and two SNP MPs.

Cuba’s medical exports are not some altruistic humanitarian endeavour: they are the main means by which the Cuban communist party keeps its bankrupt state afloat. In 2018, the last year in which the communist state published official data, it reported that its ‘social and health service’ exports earned $6.4 billion, more than twice tourism revenues.

The export of doctors started in the 1960s and by 2005 had become Cuba’s main source of revenue. Only in 2010 did the communists reveal the state secret that they were actually paid for these services, falsely claiming that the money was used to fund the Cuban health system. However, as the specialist research organisation Cuba Archive has revealed, in 2018 only 1.5% ($96.9 million) of those revenues were invested in health and social assistance, despite the Cuban healthcare system being on its knees.

In fact, diverting medical resources abroad has itself contributed to the massive underinvestment in Cuba’s health system, which suffers from decaying and unhygienic facilities and a lack basic medical supplies and equipment. Basic medicines such as antibiotics are unavailable, as the country’s Health Minister has admitted. One family doctor has said his first task of the day is to get three buckets of water for use in his clinic.

While the regime sends its people abroad, in Cuba itself there is a severe shortage of medical personnel, particularly specialist doctors. Official statistics show that between 2008 and 2018 the number of medical technicians fell by 80,320 and the number of nurses and nursing assistants went down by 22,028. Granted, the number of doctors increased by 20,935, but most of them were packed off overseas to earn money for the state.

Nor do they have much choice in the matter. While a British GP earns just shy of £65,000 a year on average, Cuban doctors earn less than 1% of that – a pitiful £620 a year. Even accounting for the lower cost of living in in Cuba, it’s barely enough to survive. 

Many therefore succumb to pressure or coercion from the state to participate in overseas ‘medical missions’ where they can earn a hard currency “bonus” of around $50-$200 monthly, which is deposited into an account in a Cuban state bank, only accessible when they return to Cuba at the end of the ‘mission’. This $50-$200 per month accounts for only 5%-20% of the amount that the Cuban state is paid by the host country in unusual and generally secret contracts. The rest is used to prop up the communist regime. A survey of doctors sent overseas revealed that many went because they feared retaliation from the Cuban authorities. Others said they joined in the hope of leaving the country or of obtaining access to food, such as meat, which they cannot buy with their salaries in Cuba.

As Human Rights Watch has recently documented, the doctors are basically treated as prisoners while overseas, facing criminal penalties if they “abandon” their jobs, being disciplined for being “friends” with people who hold “hostile or contrary views to the Cuban revolution”, and forced to undertake political and intelligence duties. Nor are they allowed to bring their families, who are effectively held hostage in Cuba. No wonder that in November 2019, the UN special rapporteurs on contemporary forms of slavery described the scheme as ‘forced labour’. 

Is it appropriate for the Labour Party to tolerate its MPs fervently supporting a despicable totalitarian state, which imprisons and tortures opponents, prevents free expression, bans independent trade unions, discriminates against LGBT people and only allows communists to serve in parliament? Should membership of the regime’s UK propaganda arm, the ‘Cuba Solidarity Campaign’ (and its offspring the ‘Venezuela Solidarity Campaign’) be compatible with membership of the Labour Party or, for that matter, of the SNP?

Labour is many things, but a party that turns a blind eye to forced labour, imprisonment of dissidents, state control of the media, and elimination of free expression surely ought not to be one of them. If Keir Starmer really wants to clean up his party, getting rid of hard-left apologists for tyranny would be a good place to start.

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Peter Young is former Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.