The first of more than 6,000 Cuban doctors working in Brazil arrived back on the Communist-run island Thursday after Havana announced it was withdrawing from a medical aid program over a spat with President-elect Jair Bolsonaro.
Cuba announced Wednesday it was pulling thousands of its doctors out of Brazil in response to Bolsonaro's "direct, contemptuous and threatening" remarks about its "More Doctors" program.
A first group of 196 doctors arrived at Havana airport, welcomed home by Cuba's deputy health minister after a three-year stint in disadvantaged areas of Brazil.
The official, Regla Angulo, said the withdrawal "will be supported by our doctors, because principles and dignity are non-negotiable."
Cuba's state news agency ACN reported the medics arrived "happy to have fulfilled their mission" but also "worried about what awaits the (Brazilian) people with the newly-elected president."
Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized Cuba's management of the program, saying he would make changes to include a competency test for Cuban medical personnel wanting to work in Brazil.
He said Cuba kept back most of the doctors' salaries, and he planned to directly hire doctors who wished to remain in Brazil.
The United States, a longstanding foe of Cuba until a thaw under former president Barack Obama, praised the incoming Brazilian leader for his stance.
"Great to see President-elect Bolsonaro insist Cuban doctors in Brazil receive their fair salary rather than let Cuba take most of it for regime coffers," tweeted Kimberly Breier, the top State Department official for Latin America.
The health ministry says nearly 20,000 Cuban doctors have been working in Brazil since the program began in August 2013, part of the "white-coat diplomacy" practiced by the island's Communist rulers for decades.
Introduced under Fidel Castro, the medical program has spread to 67 countries to become Cuba's most valuable export, worth $11 billion a year.
A Brazilian diplomatic source told AFP the withdrawal of some 6,000 Cuban doctors would be concluded by December 24. Some 2,000 others are believed likely to stay in Brazil because of personal ties.