Brazil has long considered itself to be “the country of tomorrow.” Now that it has joined the ranks of the emerging economies (still remember the BRICs?), it could reasonably say that right now it is indeed the country of tomorrow. Being given the honor to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics is seen as a major confirmation of stepping into global prime time or maybe a sweet 16 with its concomitant pomp and circumstance. Of course, one thing is to have lofty pretensions (nothing wrong with that) and another, very different, is having the capacity to fulfill them. The massive demonstrations of last June revealed that the giant may have feet of clay after all, considering what triggered those demonstrations — fare hikes for a notoriously deficient mass transit system. In addition, both the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, have recently made public their doubts about whether Brazil can actually pull it off.
Besides sports and buses, another indication that Brazil is not quite there yet – and an extremely important at that – is its health care system. In a 2011 article published in an online journal dedicated to medical tourism, the CEO of a Brazilian company specialized in that trade enthusiastically highlighted Brazil as a top destination for foreigners looking for the complete package of top-notch healthcare and exotic surroundings, but a CNN.com opinion piece from last year paints a different picture: too little funding, medical personnel in very short supply, inadequate technology and facilities, and issues with hospital management. (Ironically, that same piece highlights Brazil’s health care system as an example of what the US should have done a long time ago with the current overhaul of its own system: To treat it as part of an inalienable human right to proper health care that demands shared responsibility.)
As a way to reverse the situation, the Brazilian government has followed the path of Venezuela years ago and is extending the red carpet to Cuban doctors, who will be sent to the most underserved areas in exchange for room, board, and a payment of $4,200 a month per doctor – or $200 million a year – to the Cuban government. Besides the usual preoccupation with defections that the Cuban government has, there are concerns with the quality of the services provided, how much of the money paid to the Cuban government will actually go to the physicians, the legality of their work contract, and how the plan will serve the reelection wishes of beleaguered Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff. There is even the report that Brazilian physicians have become openly hostile to their visiting Cuban peers, prompting harsh criticism from Rousseff herself. A possibly unexplored angle is that Brazil has been friendly with Cuba – maybe too much for US comfort – since the governing Workers’ Party took office in 2002, and the millions of dollars Cuba will receive for its medical personnel are likely to keep Cuba afloat a little longer — exactly the opposite of what the anachronistic embargo still intends to do.
But the most important concern Brazilians have with the plan is the best way to conclude these thoughts: It will only go so far. Like a band-aid over a severed limb, bringing the doctors will not solve once and for all what ails Brazil’s health care system. It may reverse the shortage of medical personnel, but not everything else. Political will is the right prescription. If there is a lesson to be learned by the Brazilian government from the June demonstrations, it would be not to put for tomorrow what Brazil needs to do to become the country of tomorrow.