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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.

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Chicago street gang and Lyndon LaRouche appear in Qaddafi's FBI file

It's a bit of an exaggeration to say that the FBI has "released" its 207-page file on Muammar al-Qaddafi. The documents are so heavily redacted that most of what you get is a series of headings, dates, and corrections of the spelling of the late Libyan leader's name. But there are a few nuggets that are sure to intrigue and frustrate Libya watchers. 

The files, most of which date from the 1980s, contain several references to Qaddafi possibly putting out a contract for the assassination of Ronald Reagan -- something that has long been a matter of speculation. The most complete section refers to a possible connection between these assassination plots and the Chicago street gang the El Rukns, an Islamist offshoot of the infamous Blackstone Rangers whose leaders were convicted of planning terrorist attacks on behalf of Libya in a landmark case. 

A file from February 1989 refers to a plot the investigators seem to have concluded was bogus. (Don't let all the "redacted" notes below fool you: Believe it or not, this is the least-redacted section of the documents.)

During 1986 and 1987, the Chicago division successfully indicted and convicted five (5) members of a well established Chicago street gang known as the El Rukns. These five (5) members of the El Rukn organization were convicted of conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States on behalf of the government of Libya. Their conviction marked the first time in the history of the United States that American citizens had been found guilty of planning to commit terrorist acts in the United States for foreign government in return for money.

On February 29, 1989, [redacted] telephonically contacted the Chicago division. [Redacted] advised that one [redacted], an [redacted] had stated that Qadhafi of Libya had put a contract out on the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. Initially [redacted] told [redacted] that Qadhafi had [redacted] for information of [redacted].

[Redacted] also told [redacted] that [redacted] then told [redacted] who is [redacted] was also [redacted] in conspiring to commit terrorist acts in the United States. Subsequently, [redacted] supposedly [redacted] of this threat.

Immediately upon receiving this information, the Chicago case agent in the Rokbom matter telephonically informed the U.S. secret service, at Chicago, Illinois, and advised them of the facts outlined supra. 

On February 23, 1989, the Rukbom case agent and a U.S. secret service agent from Chiago [redacted] and interviewed [redacted]. It was learned during the course of the interview that [redacted].

[Redacted] was then extensively interviewed regarding his knowledge of any threat to the life of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan as a result of Qadhafi of Libya. [Redacted] After an extensive interview, it is the opinion of the Chicago case agent in the Rukbom matter that [redacted] is exaggerating [redacted] with Qadhafi of Libya. It should also be noted that the Chicago agent of the Rukbom matter and the U.S. Secret Service agent who conducted the interview noted numerous inconsistencies in [redacted] statements while the interview took place. 

There's also a totally redacted 1987 telex from the bureau's San Diego office titled, "Libyan dissident plans to overthrow Libyan leader Moummar Khaddafy," as well as quite a few follow-ups from offices throughout the country. It's tempting to wonder if these had anything to do with the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the exile group known for several assassination attempts on Qaddafi -- efforts that, according to some reports, may have been supported by the CIA. The group's leaders, several of whom are now active in Libyan politics, were living in the United States at the time.

An August 1986 cable from Sacramento -- entirely redacted -- concerns an interview with a "contract worker concerning Moammar Qadhafi compound." That was, as it happens, a few months after the U.S. bombed Qaddafi's compound.  

In one intriguing 1986 document, political activist and perennial longshot presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche makes a mysterious cameo:

Changed: [Redacted] alleged plot to assassinate president Ronald Reagan during the New York statue of Liberty celebration July 3-6, 1986. 

This communication is classified "secret" in its entirety.

Title marked changed to more clearly state the the substance of this case. Title formerly carried as "Libyan terrorist activities: IT-Libya: [unreadable] Muammar Qadhafi, Lyndon Larouche: International terrorism, information concerning.[...]

The purpose of this teletype is to report the resolution of captioned matter as unfounded.

I don't know of any connection between LaRouche and Libya. This was shortly before the politician's headquarters was raided by the FBI as part of a fraud investigation, but I can't imagine that's related.

There are several reports on Qaddafi's travels as well. A May 1985 cable discusses a visit by the leader to Palma de Mallorca and identifies his traveling companions, including a number of Libyans, an Egyptian, a Tunisian, and a Yugoslavian. The names are all redacted.

That same year, the bureau noted a trip to Moscow to sign a "treaty of friendship and cooperation" with the U.S.S.R. 

The FBI's analysis conclues that for Moscow, the treaty is "probably a payoff for Qadhafi's support of Soviet foreign policy in the region.... Qadhafi's invitation from the Moscow and the prospect of the treaty signing indicate the Kremlin sees some value in Qadhafi's openly hostile anti-U.S. activities." It's not entirely clear why the FBI was taking note of this foreign-policy development.

There are also discussions of security arrangements for Qaddafi's visit to the U.N. General Assembly in 1985. A telex requests the names of the "Libyan females accompanying Qadhafi family," a reference to his famous bodyguards. 

Overall, as the cliche goes, the files raise more questions than they answer. One thing we do know for sure is that there was absolutely no bureau consensus on the spelling of Qaddafi. 

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