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Cuba trades doctors for dollars

Cuba is turning a tidy profit on other nations' crude oil.

The service arrangements have strained Cuban families and the island’s own health system, but Cuban workers typically welcome the chance to go abroad, even to faraway places like Qatar or Angola, since they can earn far more than the $20-a-month average salary they would get at home.

The island’s economic fortunes will be even more entwined with world energy prices in the coming years, as Cuba has signed more than a dozen deals with foreign companies to develop its offshore reserves. A sophisticated Chinese-built deepwater drilling rig is due to arrive into Cuban waters this summer, where a foreign consortium led by Spanish energy giant Repsol will try to tap undersea deposits that geologists believe hold billions of barrels of oil.

A large discovery will accelerate Cuba’s transformation from fuel-deficient importer to significant regional energy player.

The Venezuelan government has also invested more than $6 billion to upgrade Cuba’s Cienfuegos refinery, turning the southern port city into one of the region’s largest petrochemical centers. A similar expansion is also underway along Cuba’s north coast in Matanzas, and the two projects will more than double the island’s refining capacity.

Even with those projects years away from completion, economist Ricardo Torres said there’s no longer a sense of alarm in Cuba now when oil prices increase. But he cautioned that it’s difficult to calculate the exact benefit to Cuba, because the terms of its service contracts with foreign oil producers like Venezuela have never been disclosed.

There are other risks as well, he noted. “Those agreements were negotiated based on strong ties with those countries. But if you think of a situation in which one of those governments changes, Cuba will have to negotiate a new agreement. So it’s still vulnerable to political developments in those countries.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/cuba/110113/cuba-oil-doctors-castro