SAO PAULO (Reuters) – Brazil is set to hire more doctors to fight coronavirus and the drive will include Cuban doctors in Brazil as part of a medical program that was canceled in late 2018 amid a diplomatic spat between Havana and Jair Bolsonaro, the health ministry said on Monday.

Health ministry officials said they will initially look to hire Brazilian nationals, but after that, they would try to bring in Cuban doctors – collateral damage in a war-of-words between President Jair Bolsonaro, who was then the president-elect, and Havana.

Bolsonaro, a far-right army captain, has for years railed against communist Cuba, which had close ties to previous leftists administrations in Brasilia.

Almost 9,000 Cuban doctors, many working in poor, remote communities across continent-sized Brazil, headed home in November 2018, after Havana pulled them. Bolsonaro said they were working in “slave labor” because the Cuban government took 75% of their salaries.

But 1,800 did not go back to Cuba and will be eligible for re-hiring, a ministry official told Reuters.

Cuba has a respected health service and generates major export earnings by sending more than 50,000 health workers to more than 60 countries. Even receiving a fraction of their salaries, the money was good for the doctors by Cuban standards.

Late-stage medical students will also be called up as part of the measures to tackle the coronavirus, health ministry official said.

(Reporting by Gabriel Araujo and Pedro Fonseca; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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