Cuba cries foul as doctors head home from Bolivia

HAVANA (Reuters) - The first of around 700 Cuban doctors were scheduled to fly home from strife-torn Bolivia on Saturday as officials railed against what they charged was slander and mistreatment by Bolivia’s conservative interim government.

Cuba said Saturday that 10 doctors, including the coordinator of its medical mission, were detained this week and four remained in custody.

On Friday, the foreign ministry said it was terminating its medical mission as officials were fostering violence against the doctors by claiming they were instigating rebellion.

The Communist-run island nation was a key ally of former leftist President Evo Morales, who resigned under pressure on Sunday and fled to Mexico after weeks of protests and violence over a disputed Oct. 20 election.

Cuba has backed Morales’ assertion that he was toppled in a foreign-backed coup.

Protests by Morales’ supporters have continued in capital La Paz, nearby El Alto, and the central city of Cochabamba, where at least five protesters were killed on Friday and hundreds reportedly detained.

The four doctors still in custody were picked up on Wednesday after withdrawing a significant amount of cash from the bank, which the government charged was to finance protests.

The Cuban foreign ministry countered the doctors withdrew the same amount of money every month to cover expenses of 107 doctors working in the La Paz area.

“Cease the irresponsible anti-Cuban expressions of hate, lies, defamations and instigations to violence against Cuban cooperators,” President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweeted on Friday.

Bolivia’s interim Foreign Minister Karen Longaric said Friday upon announcing Cuba would fly home its doctors that “there have been a number of accusations that Cuban citizens have been involved in these aggressive acts that have tormented our country in recent days.”

Brazil and Ecuador have acted similarly against Cubans in recent months as they aligned themselves more closely with the United States.

The Caribbean island nation has a respected health service and generates export earnings by sending more than 30,000 health workers to more than 60 countries.

The United States has accused Cuba of mistreating its doctors and pressuring them to take part in political activities. It has asked governments to stop contracting them.

Cuba denies the charges and says they are part of the Trump administration’s efforts to slander the country even as it applies new sanctions on top of old to deny it revenues used in part to provide free health services to its population.

Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Nick Zieminski