Image: U.S. medical students
Rodrigo Abd  /  AP
U.S. medical students, attending their graduation ceremony from Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine, pose Tuesday at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana. From left to right, they are Melissa Barber, upper left corner, Carmen Landau, Wing Wu , unnamed professor, Evelyn Erick, Jose De Leon, Tussaint Reynolds and Teresa Thomas.
updated 7/25/2007 12:36:26 AM ET 2007-07-25T04:36:26

Eight American students graduated from a Cuban medical school on Tuesday and said they planned to put six years of education paid for by Fidel Castro’s communist government to use in hospitals back home.

The four New Yorkers, three Californians and a Minnesota native, all from minority backgrounds, began studying in Havana in April 2001. They are the first class of Americans to graduate from the Latin American School of Medicine since Castro offered free training to U.S. students seven year ago following meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“I’ve learned that medicine is not a business,” said Toussaint Reynolds, a graduate from Massapequa, New York. “I will be a better doctor in the United States for it.”

The 80-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since last July 31, when he announced that emergency intestinal surgery was forcing him to step down in favor of a provisional government headed by his younger brother Raul.

On Tuesday, about 2,100 students from 25 countries graduated from the medical school, including some 1,200 medical doctors, as well as dentists, nurses and medical technicians. More than 10,000 students attend the school that opened in 1999 to provide free training to foreign students from disadvantaged families.

Washington’s 45-year-old embargo prohibits most Americans from traveling to Cuba and chokes off nearly all trade between the countries. But the State Department has not opposed the medical school program, saying U.S. policy hopes to encourage contact between ordinary Cubans and Americans.

U.S. authorities have suggested it is unclear whether Americans who receive medical training in Cuba can meet licensing requirements in the United States. The graduates must pass two exams to apply for residency at U.S. hospitals, and then a third test, much like students who received medical degrees in other countries.

'Prepared clinically'
The six U.S. women and two men who graduated Tuesday all received degrees in medicine.

While they are the first graduating class of Americans, a U.S. student who began studying in the United States then transferred to the Cuban school graduated two years ago. He recently began his residency at a hospital in New York City.

Kenya Bingham, who graduated Tuesday and is from Alameda, Calif., said some might think less of a Cuban medical degree.

“Do I think there will be prejudices against us when we go back to the states and are looking for residences? Yes, I think there will be just due to the simple fact that there are political differences between the two countries,” Bingham said. “But I’m definitely confident that the eight of us are very well prepared clinically.”

The Rev. Lucius Walker, of the U.S. nonprofit Pastors for Peace, has worked closely with the graduating U.S. students and said that about 100 other Americans are enrolled at the school, and another 18 are scheduled to start next month

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