"Brain drain” is a phrase that first appeared in the 1950s, when London’s Royal Society expressed concern about the number of British scientists, engineers, and physicians being lured to the United States. Its concern was not misplaced: The Second World War had essentially bankrupted Britain, and in the wake of postwar privations and the nationalization of health care, the number of British professionals crossing the Atlantic to affluent America was substantial.
Since then, the phrase has been applied retroactively: The arrival of German Jewish refugees—novelists, scientists, scholars, composers—during the Third Reich was a “brain drain” for Germany but an unexpected bonus for us. So imagine The Scrapbook’s surprise, if you will, when the New York Times revived the term in a November 16 editorial (“A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.”).
Only this time it wasn’t about Scottish engineers taking high-paying jobs in Texas, or Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany for their lives. It was in reference to the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, an eight-year-old U.S. immigration measure that puts Cuban health professionals who choose to defect on the fast track to American citizenship. And the Times is against it.
Since Cuba is a closely organized Communist police state, it has an educated population with limited opportunities to practice their professions. The typical bartender in a Havana tourist hotel (no Cuban customers allowed) holds a master’s -degree in electrical engineering. The same is true for the health sciences. Cuba trains a large number of nurses, technicians, and physicians, but the products of these programs are coerced into overseas service to generate foreign currency. Cuba trades health workers for oil from Venezuela, for example; more than a few Cuban physicians are treating Ebola patients in West Africa, and Havana seizes the bulk of their income.
The fact that many Cuban health workers might resent this state of affairs—and consider their overseas labor a form of indentured servitude—is self-evident. Even the Times acknowledges that “some doctors who have defected say they felt the overseas tours had an implicit element of coercion and have complained that the government pockets the bulk of the money it gets for their services.” Yet the editorial sympathy of the Times is extended not to exploited doctors—whose annual incomes, after a recent government raise, are a stupefying $720 a year—but to the Cuban government. The Times complains that the Castro dictatorship trained these health workers, and now the United States is offering them a life of freedom and prosperity!
The language of the Times editorial is telling. The author of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program was the “hard-line Cuban exile” Emilio González, who headed the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Bush administration. And “the Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity.”
The Scrapbook begs to differ with the New York Times. The program is a lifeline for people who have dedicated their lives to health care and wish to practice their profession in freedom and dignity. It also undermines the coercive power of a dictatorship and illustrates why America remains a beacon to the world.
There is one word to describe those who sit comfortably in Manhattan—well paid, highly educated, free to speak their minds—and would shut the door on doctors and nurses who seek the basic freedoms American journalists take for granted. That word is “grotesque.”