U.S.-Cuba Detente Could Hike the Number of U.S. Medical Students in Cuba

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CubaAs relations between the United States and Cuba move toward normalization, a Cuban government-run medical school that offers free full scholarships to students from poor communities worldwide could see a jump in enrollment from the United States.     

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro are expected to have an informal discussion when they meet this week in Panama for the Seventh Summit of the Americas, according to the White House. Whether free medical education in Cuba for U.S. students is discussed remains to be seen.

Cuba, with its highly sophisticated, world-renowned health care system, has more doctors per capita than any other country. In response to massive loss of life in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua from Hurricanes Mitch and George, the Cuban government established the Latin American School of Medicine (LASM, or ELAM by its Spanish acronym) in 1999 in western Havana to train 500 young people from those nations for free each year for the next ten years.

By requiring the program’s graduating doctors to return to their home countries and serve in communities with the greatest medical need, Cuba hoped to create a health-care infrastructure for Central America and the Caribbean. Cuban officials noted at the time that “the permanent hurricane of poverty and underdevelopment kills more people every year than these hurricanes just did.”

By 2013, nearly 20,000 students from 124 countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas—including the United States—were enrolled at LASM, making the medical school one of the world’s largest by enrollment. 

In September 2000, while in New York for the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, Cuban President Fidel Castro offered free medical education in Cuba to Black and Latino students from poor communities in the United States, with the condition that graduates return to the U.S. to serve underprivileged areas. Castro’s offer, made during a speech at Riverside Church, followed his brainstorming in Cuba three months earlier with visiting members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Latino Congressional Caucus who were concerned about the state of health care in their home communities. 

Cuba’s Ministry of Health designated the Interrelations Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO)/Pastors for Peace organization, an interfaith organization with a decades-long history of community service in Cuba and the United States and working relations with the Congressional Black Caucus, the sole organization in the United States to facilitate the medical scholarship ​for U.S. candidates. Located in New York City’s Harlem community, IFCO has worked since 1991 to bring about normalized relations between the United States and Cuba.

In 2004, the CBC successfully campaigned to exempt LASM when President George W. Bush’s tightened restrictions against travel to Cuba. The first U.S. students entered the program in the spring of 2001. To date, 111 U.S. students have graduated from LASM’s seven-year program with M.D. degrees, and 47 are in residency in U.S. hospitals.

According to Cuba’s application criteria, candidates must:
    •    Be U.S. citizens with a U.S. passport;
    •    Be between the ages of 18 and 25 by the time of application;
    •    Have completed the following college-level, pre-med science courses: One year of biology with lab; One year of chemistry with lab; One year of organic chemistry with lab; and one year of physics with lab;
    •    Be physically and mentally fit;
    •    Come from the humblest and neediest communities in the United States;
    •    Be committed to practice medicine in poor and underserved U.S. communities after graduation.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the median four-year cost of medical school (including expenses and books) was $278,455 for private schools, and $207,866 for public schools in 2013. More information on Cuba’s medical scholarship can be found at www.ifconews.org.