In June 2010, at a joint press conference in Perth, the foreign ministers of Australia and Cuba expressed their wish to work together in a range of areas, in particular health aid programs in the Pacific and Caribbean regions (AMFAT 2010). From the Australian side this was a change from the previous conservative government, which had maintained a low key but emphatic opposition to a Cuban presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Former Foreign Minister Downer wrote to Papua New Guinea (PNG) Health Minister Peter Barter claiming that 'bringing in Cuban doctors could contribute to destabilised security in the Pacific' (AAP 2007). The Labor Government took a different view. Early indications are that Australia's conservative government, elected in September 2013, will continue this new approach.
Such collaboration has its own logic: both countries have great capacity to assist the Pacific island nations, and there is always value to be found in genuine efforts at cooperation and complementarity. However the move also raises the question: how might these two very different systems work together, when they have such distinct aims and methods? Clearly there is some mutual goodwill, but effective collaboration requires some key accommodations between what could be called a 'modified neo-liberal' system of aid and one that emphasises building human capacity and public systems. What are these to be? There are also practical questions: how would collaboration in health worker training deal with language and syllabus differences?
I suggest these questions are best understood through a comparative historical study of stated aims, underlying ideology, interest and action. Practical characterisation of the two countries' health aid systems and their differences can help explain the possibilities and problems faced in collaboration. This article will therefore consider the history, ideas and character of the two systems, including their impact in the Pacific islands and Timor Leste, before returning to the challenges for this unlikely partnership.
Then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith visited Cuba in November 2009. This was the first visit to Cuba by an Australian Foreign Minister since 1995. Smith said the visit was 'a fresh start to our relationship, to enhance the good working and productive relationship between Australia and Cuba' (AMFAT 2009). Seven months later he welcomed Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez to Australia, revealing that the two countries had already signed agreements on 'general political and bilateral cooperation' as well as on 'sporting matters' and were looking at further agreements on cultural contacts and development assistance (AMFAT 2010). The major focus was cooperation in health assistance. Smith observed: 'Cuba is internationally renowned for the medical assistance work that it does ... we're looking at what we can do together, in the Pacific, and also potentially in the Caribbean, in terms of collaboration on development assistance in the medical area' (AMFAT 2010). Noting that Cuba already had health programs in six Pacific island countries and more than 900 East Timorese medical students undergoing training, Rodriguez was similarly positive: 'We could have [an] excellent exchange in our programs of international medical...
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