DA calls on government to repatriate medical students stranded in Cuba

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SA students say they are living in poor conditions in Cuba. Pictured is one of their rooms.
SA students say they are living in poor conditions in Cuba. Pictured is one of their rooms.
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  • A group of South African medical students are stuck in Cuba and barely have enough to survive.
  • The DA wants the health department to work with Dirco to ensure the students are brought home.
  • The students were expected to return to South Africa last year.

The DA has weighed in on the plight of several South African medical students stuck in Cuba.

As things stand, the students have the bare minimum to survive.

A group of about 500 medical students, who completed their fifth year of studies in Cuba, have complained about the deplorable living conditions.

In June, News24 reported that some students had to sell their clothes to get money because many had not received their stipends from the government since May.

The students were expected to return to South Africa last year.

The DA has now called on the Department of Health to work with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) to ensure the struggling students are brought home safely.

READ | Defence dept cash-strapped, but pays Cubans more than R1 billion to repair equipment

DA MP Haseena Ismail said: "The Nelson Mandela-Fidel Castro Medical Collaboration Programme was established to give students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to study in Cuba on full scholarships.

"This programme has been mired with faults since inception, leaving students stranded in a foreign country without sufficient stipends, poor quality accommodation and food, and limited access to necessities, such as toiletries and sanitary pads."

Medical training in Cuba for South African students takes six years, beginning with a preparatory year, taught in Spanish, followed by five years of tuition. During this period, they are allowed to return home twice for vacations.

According to the Department of Health, two charter flights to bring the students back had been secured. The first charter had been expected to depart Cuba on 24 July and the second on 27 July.

At the time, department spokesperson Popo Maja said the flights had been delayed because the students demanded that their stipend be paid before boarding the flight.

Ismail said the government could not continue to send students to Cuba, only to leave them with the bare minimum needed to survive.

She also called on the National Treasury to intervene.

Stipends

"In addition to these poor living and learning conditions, recent reports have come to light that students have not received their stipends since May.

"The government's reasoning for this is that international payments to the students go through the United States financial systems and, since there is an embargo on Cuba, these monies have been paid, but have not made it into the hands of students. It seems that these students are getting the short end as a result of poor management and planning on the part of the department," she said.

Asked for comment, Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela referred queries to the health department.

READ | DA wants more information from govt about Cubans employed in SA

Maja is yet to respond to questions sent to him on Monday. It will be added once received.

Meanwhile, the stranded SA medical students told News24 on Monday that 70 students were not enough to fill a charter flight.

According to the group of students, the Department of Health refused to organise commercial flights - and departure has been postponed to 5 August.

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