World Bank President Praises Castro Government

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

( - The president of the World Bank has angered Cuban exile groups by praising the social programs instituted by the Castro government in Cuba.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn told a Washington news conference on Tuesday, "I think Cuba has done -- and everybody would acknowledge -- a great job on education and health. They should be congratulated on what they've done."

Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) called Wolfensohn "the ultimate bureaucrat from another planet."

Said Diaz-Balart, "Cuba was more advanced in the area of health before Castro than after the Castro takeover. Yet Castro continues to talk about so called advances as a pretext to cover up the absolute destruction of Cuba and the totalitarian repression of the Cuban people. So the fact that you have bureaucrats like this fellow at the World Bank spewing baloney like this, is really pathetic."

The Cuban American National Foundation, a nemesis of the Castro government, also took exception to Wolfensohn's comments.

"I think that it's a very often propagated myth about health care and education in Cuba," said CANF spokesperson Mariella Ferretti. "Anyone who has ever visited Miami will see the many stores that we have here that specialize in shipping medicine to Cuba. This is where probably the bulk of Cuban families receive medicines that are non-existent in Cuba," said Ferretti.

She added that Cubans depend on relatives living in Miami to send them humanitarian assistance, but it comes at a high cost. "You can't put something in the mail and just mail it to Cuba as you would any other country. This has to go through these special companies that charge rates according to what Fidel Castro wants them to charge and that's how they do business. Millions of dollars come out of South Florida to Cuba in the form of humanitarian assistance, medicines especially," Ferretti said.

Ferretti noted that the Castro's Cuba offers a "dual health care system" - one for the Cuban elite, which also serves foreigners visiting the country. But, she said, "Even a Cuban national with dollars in his pocket cannot go to those premium hospitals." Ordinary Cubans go to inferior hospitals, she said.

According to Ferretti, the elite hospitals are heavily subsidized by the Cuban people, so Fidel Castro can say that his country has free health care.

However, Dr. Philip Brenner, an international relations professor and Cuba expert at Washington's American University agrees with Wolfensohn's Cuba assessment.

"Wolfensohn's comments are a refreshingly candid observation by a western leader. He recognizes the extraordinary achievements in Cuba. The achievements are all the more remarkable because of 40 years of hostility by the United States that have tried to prevent Cuba from advancing," Brenner said.

Radio Havana reported last week that some 3,700 new students of medical sciences will be admitted to Cuban schools and universities this year, of which 1,600 will seek careers as doctors, according to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health.

A further 1,700 will study nursing and 200 will study dentistry. Approximately 130 foreign students will be among those entering Cuba's full medical degree programs in the country's seven medical schools. The foreign students come from a total of 34 countries, according to Radio Havana.

Dr Aracelis Montero Casimiro, head of admissions at the Ministry of Public Health, said that this year, some 3,000 students were expected to graduate in various disciplines within the medical field. Currently, 16,900 students are studying medical sciences in Cuba.