By Esteban Israel
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - President Dilma Rousseff's plan to import foreign doctors to work in rural and poor parts of Brazil, part of a move to quell massive street protests over poor public services, has run into stiff opposition from the powerful medical lobby.
Public dissatisfaction over the quality of healthcare has helped fuel nationwide protests over the past month and spurred Rousseff, a pragmatic leftist, to announce earlier this week the "emergency action" plan to bring in foreign doctors.
Brazil's public healthcare system, which serves some 75 percent of its 194 million people, has a shortage of 54,000 physicians, leaving it with a mere 1.8 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, according to government data.
The problem is particularly dire in remote parts of the country. In Imperatriz, a city of 250,000 in the poor northeastern state of Maranhao, the municipal hospital's intensive care unit has gone without a pediatrician for a year.
With not enough Brazilian doctors to meet these needs, health officials have seized upon the idea of importing doctors from Spain and Portugal, which have about double the number of doctors per capita but are suffering deep economic crises.
Local doctors, however, are skeptical and angry about the plan, which they see as an attempt to obscure the government's failures in healthcare. The Federal Board of Medicine, which represents 400,000 doctors, has announced a walk-out on July 3 in protest.
"Portuguese and Spanish won't come because of the work conditions," said Roberto D'Avila, president of the Federal Board of Medicine. "All this rhetoric is being employed to justify the arrival of Cuban doctors without re-training."
Early this year, authorities floated the idea of bringing up to 6,000 doctors from Cuba. D'Avila is dubious of the skills of Cuban doctors, claiming that some have the training of one of "our nurses."
"Bringing doctors from abroad would only make matters worse," Alison Soto, the director of the municipal hospital in Imperatriz, said in an interview. "It's the government's skewed view."
Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, has long been a destination for immigrants, with waves of Europeans and Japanese going there in the last century. But foreigners only represent 0.3 percent of Brazil's current labor force, far below the global average of 3 percent, according to United Nations data.
"Brazil needs to have a migratory flow 10, 15, 20 times bigger than it currently does," Ricardo Paes de Barros, secretary of strategic affairs for the president's office, said in an interview with Reuters. "That would oxygenate Brazil's society and economy."
In the last six months Brazil has taken steps in that direction, facilitating access to temporary work visas and permitting spouses of foreign professionals to work as well.
Paes de Barros wants to simplify the hiring of foreign professionals, create special visas for foreigners interested in looking for jobs in Brazil and offer work permits to foreigners who study in the country.
Changing work laws, however, likely won't be enough to fix the labor shortages. Foreigners complain about the high cost of living, violence and traffic gridlock in its cities.
And with the country's once strong economic growth cooling - GDP grew by about 0.9 percent last year - Latin America's largest economy is not as strong a lure as it was a few years ago.
A faltering economy and the government's decision to focus on preparations for the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics has stoked public anger and fueled the demonstrations.
"We could have the friendliest legislation in the world without anyone wanting to come," said Paes de Barros. "We don't only have to send the invitations - we have to make sure that the party will be a good one."
(Reporting by Esteban Israel; Additional reporting by Lucas Iberico-Lozada; Editing by Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Paul Simao)