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Cuba's greatest export? Medical diplomacy

What can an impoverished island nation -- one isolated by the United States and lacking natural resources of its own -- do to secure its influence in the world and earn hard currency? In Cuba's case, the answer lies in its medical corps.

On Monday, Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota announced that his country is in negotiations to hire some 6,000 Cuban doctors to come work in rural areas of Brazil. The plan highlights what has become a cornerstone of Cuban foreign policy and its export economy. Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, the country has aggressively exported its doctors around the world -- sometimes for humanitarian reasons, sometimes for cash -- and has garnered a reputation as a provider of health care to the world's neediest countries.

Shortly after the revolution, for instance, Fidel Castro sent physicians to Algeria as a sign of socialist solidarity and to Chile in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Since then, Cuba has sent at least 185,000 health workers to more than 100 different countries, according to the New York Times.

But what began as a strategy for exporting revolution has in more recent years turned into a means of ensuring the government's survival. Cuba's largest medical mission is currently in Venezuela, which sends Havana 90,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for 30,000 Cuban physicians. It's an elegant quid pro quo that secures legitimacy for the Venezuelan government and keeps the Cuban economy afloat.

We hear a lot about Cuban cigars, but tobacco is far from Cuba's most important export. In 2006, 28 percent, or $2.3 billion, of Cuba's total export earnings came from medical services, according to a study by Julie Feinsilver. As a rough measure of comparison, Cuba's cigar exports totaled $215 million in 2011.

So what might Cuba's latest foray into medical diplomacy entail? In return for physicians and other health workers, Brazil is expected to fund infrastructure projects in Cuba and direct a $176 million loan toward Cuban airports. Cuban medical personnel, meanwhile, will fan out to rural areas of Brazil that are typically underserved by doctors.

It's a bitter irony for U.S. policymakers that 50 years after the imposition of the Cuban embargo, the communist regime is circumventing efforts to isolate it by sending, of all things, doctors around the world.

Never mind that the motive isn't always humanitarian.

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

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