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S. Africa Welcomes 96 Cuban Doctors

February 28, 1996|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Fidel Castro's Cuba may be a polecat in the U.S., but hugs, flowers and chants of "Viva Fidel!" greeted a delegation of 96 Cuban doctors who arrived here Tuesday to work in rural hospitals.

Dr. Nkosazana Zuma, South Africa's health minister, welcomed the jet-lagged physicians as they passed through a cheering crowd at the international airport. She said they would be sent immediately to communities where South African doctors are reluctant to serve.

"Some of these areas don't have any doctors," she told a joint news conference with Dr. Jorge Antelo Perez, Cuba's deputy health minister. He said Cuba has sent doctors to 35 countries as foreign aid.

The Cubans will work on one-year renewable contracts to help fill some of the country's 2,000 vacant medical posts, a shortage exacerbated by the emigration of medical school graduates to better-paying jobs in Britain, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Zuma said she expects Castro's government to send about 500 doctors in all, with the next batch arriving in June. "We'll get as many as the Cubans will allow us," she said.

In recent weeks, President Nelson Mandela has repeated his invitation for Castro, who drew the spotlight when he attended Mandela's inauguration in May 1994, to return to South Africa. Mandela also said he is "determined to invite" Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

"Those were our friends who were with us when we were all alone," Mandela explained in a television interview earlier this month. "I'm not going to take advice as to who my friends should be."

The African National Congress, which Mandela heads, has had long ties with both Havana and Tripoli. Both regimes provided military training and arms to ANC guerrillas and donated millions of dollars to the liberation movement to support its fight against white rule.

Several people held signs at the airport Tuesday calling for an end to U.S. sanctions against Cuba. And Cheryl Carolus, deputy secretary-general of the ANC, criticized the Clinton administration for its anti-Cuban policies.

"We do not understand why the Americans think Cuba is a threat," she said.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Pretoria declined comment Tuesday on the arriving Cubans.

About 30 U.S. Peace Corps volunteers are due for the first time in October, with 100 expected by the end of next year.

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