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First Cuban doctors return over spat with Brazil's Bolsonaro

Then-president Dilma Rousseff of Brazil greets Cuban doctors after approving the More Doctors program with Cuba, in Brasilia on October 22, 2013
Then-president Dilma Rousseff of Brazil greets Cuban doctors after approving the More Doctors program with Cuba, in Brasilia on October 22, 2013 Presidencia de Brasil/AFP/File
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Havana (AFP)

The first of more than 6,000 Cuban doctors working in Brazil arrived back on the Communist-run island Thursday after Havana announced it was withdrawing from a medical aid program over a spat with President-elect Jair Bolsonaro.

Cuba announced Wednesday it was pulling thousands of its doctors out of Brazil in response to Bolsonaro's "direct, contemptuous and threatening" remarks about its "More Doctors" program.

A first group of 196 doctors arrived at Havana airport, welcomed home by Cuba's deputy health minister after a three-year stint in disadvantaged areas of Brazil.

The official, Regla Angulo, said the withdrawal "will be supported by our doctors, because principles and dignity are non-negotiable."

Cuba's state news agency ACN reported the medics arrived "happy to have fulfilled their mission" but also "worried about what awaits the (Brazilian) people with the newly-elected president."

Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized Cuba's management of the program, saying he would make changes to include a competency test for Cuban medical personnel wanting to work in Brazil.

He said Cuba kept back most of the doctors' salaries, and he planned to directly hire doctors who wished to remain in Brazil.

The health ministry says nearly 20,000 Cuban doctors have been working in Brazil since the program began in August 2013, part of the "white-coat diplomacy" practiced by the island's Communist rulers for decades.

Introduced under Fidel Castro, the medical program has spread to 67 countries to become Cuba's most valuable export, worth $11 billion a year.

A Brazilian diplomatic source told AFP the withdrawal of some 6,000 Cuban doctors would be concluded by December 24. Some 2,000 others are believed likely to stay in Brazil because of personal ties.

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