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BRASILIA (Reuters) - The Brazilian government, under pressure to improve public health services, has dropped plans to import a contingent of Cuban doctors and is instead looking to hire physicians in Spain and Portugal, the Health Ministry said on Monday.
The plan to bring in Cuban doctors created a backlash because of questions about their qualifications. Brazilian medical associations argued that standards at Cuba's medical schools were lower than in Brazil and equivalent in some cases to a nursing education.
Brazil was rocked last month by massive protests fueled by frustration with a high cost of living and deplorable public transportation, education and health services, plus anger over the billions that will be spent to host the 2014 World Cup.
In response, President Dilma Rousseff is moving to expand public services, crack down on corruption and hold a non-binding national vote on political reform. Her push to improve services comes even as the government tightens the reins on overall spending in an effort to preserve fiscal responsibility.
On Monday, Rousseff unveiled a health plan that aims to fill the lack of physicians in rural communities and poor outskirts of Brazilian cities by hiring more local and foreign doctors.
"Every Brazilian must have access to a doctor," Rousseff said in a speech. "Brazil is short of doctors. If we don't have enough in Brazil, we will look for good doctors wherever they are."
In May, Brazil's government said it was in talks with Cuba to hire 6,000 Cuban doctors to serve in remote parts of the country where medical services are deficient or non-existent.
In the past decade, Cuba's communist government has sent 30,000 doctors to work in poor neighborhoods of Venezuela, Havana's closest political ally. Under an agreement reached back then with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Cuba sent doctors in exchange for cheap oil.
Instead of a contingent of Cuban doctors, Brazil's Health Ministry will hire foreign doctors where needed on an individual basis. Each foreign doctor, a ministry official said, will individually apply to work in Brazil.
"We never reached a deal with Cuba. Now the priority is Spain and Portugal," the official said.
Cuban doctors can apply, he said, but ads offering doctors work in Brazil will be posted in Spain and Portugal, not in Cuba. The doctors will be paid 10,000 reais ($4,400) a month.
Last week, Brazilian doctors staged demonstrations in several cities opposing the hiring of foreign physicians. The government maintained that it will do so to fill gaps left by Brazilian doctors who prefer not to work in remote areas.
Rousseff said Brazilians will be offered the jobs first. "The goal is not to bring doctors from abroad but to provide more healthcare in the interior of Brazil," she said.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Paulo Prada and Philip Barbara)