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Cuban doctors fleeing Venezuela find themselves in limbo

Cuban doctors fleeing Venezuela find themselves in limbo
jwyss@MiamiHerald.com

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
Working in Venezuela, a country where they often had to wait in line for
hours to buy food, even small gestures were welcome. So Félix Pérez, his
daughter and two colleagues — all Cuban health workers sent there as
part of the island’s foreign-aid program — jumped at the chance when
they were invited to a neighbor’s house for lunch.

Later that day, however, their supervisors accused them of breaking
bread with a member of Venezuela’s opposition.

“They took away our cellphones and our passports — they essentially took
everything so we wouldn’t be able to communicate,” recalls Pérez, a
50-year-old rehabilitation specialist. “We knew they were going to end
our mission and send us back to Cuba, so we decided to flee to Colombia.”

In this thriving capital, they were expecting quick and safe passage to
the United States under the 2006 Cuban Medical Professional Parole
Program, tailor-made for the island’s health workers. But six months
later, Pérez and his daughter are still waiting for a response from the
U.S. Embassy. Their money has run out and they spend their days playing
cards in a cramped home with other Cubans caught in limbo.

Exiles here say they’ve registered some 250 Cuban health workers in
Bogotá waiting to go to the United States. Most came here expecting
their cases to be resolved within 30 to 90 days, but some have waited as
long as seven months without a response, or only to be turned down.

Colombia’s foreign ministry and the U.S. Embassy did not immediately
respond to interview requests about the delays due to a national holiday.

The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald visited five group homes where
dozens of Cuban health workers were crammed into small living quarters,
often sharing mattresses and living day-to-day on borrowed money.

Doctors Abroad

The men and women are the face of Cuba’s international aid. The island
began sending medical brigades abroad in 1963 — the first cohort went to
Algeria. Since then, almost 132,000 doctors have worked as
internacionalistas, according to a 2014 article in the state-run Granma
newspaper. Currently, more than 50,000 Cubans are working abroad.

Governments pay the communist island for the doctors, making them an
important source of revenue. And perhaps nowhere is the program more
vital than in Venezuela, which in 2003 established the “Barrio Adentro”
program — free healthcare centers staffed by Cubans.

In exchange, Venezuela sends crude oil and cash back to Cuba. During
2003-13 the state-run PDVSA oil company pumped $22.4 billion dollars
into the program. Venezuela Health Minister Francisco Armada told
state-run VTV television there are more than 10,000 Cuban health
professionals in Venezuela, and that since 2003 they had provided 617
million free consultations and saved more than a million lives.

But many of those health workers complain that once they arrived in
Venezuela they were treated like indentured servants.

Discel Rodriguez, a 42-year-old nurse, said he was forced to live with
five other doctors in confined quarters. They had a 6 p.m. curfew and
were discouraged from making friends in the community.

“At least in Cuba you could live in a house with the people that you
cared about,” he said. “But Venezuela was punishment — it was a prison.”

As food shortages became a problem, doctors cycling into the program
brought their own beans, garlic and personal-care items from the
impoverished island, he said.

Crime was also rampant. One of his supervisors was robbed at gunpoint by
two youths on a bicycle.

“It made me so angry because I would see little old ladies getting
mugged,” he said. “Venezuela is so sad.”

Rodriguez fled to Colombia early this year with $600 dollars in his
pocket, expecting he could survive for a month or two as he applied for
a U.S. visa. Five months later, he’s still waiting for news.

“I’ve had to sell my children’s computer [in Cuba], I’ve had to sell
their television,” he said, as he has struggled to pay his $150 monthly
rent. “If we could work or do something while we waited life would be a
little better. But right now things are very tough.”

Answers wanted

Asked about the delays, the U.S. State Department referred questions to
the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. That agency said it could
not immediately provide answers to a series of questions.

Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said she and her
legislative colleagues would be sending a joint letter demanding answers.

“The Cuban Medical Professionals Program (CMPP) was designed to help
those who desert a Cuban medical mission find refuge in the United
States after being forced to serve the Castro regime abroad,” she said
in a statement to the Miami Herald. “If these applicants are eligible
under CMPP, we would like to know why there has been a delay in
processing these visas and what, if any, reason exists for that delay.”

Among the doctors in Colombia, however, speculation about the delays is
one more way to kill time. Some think the recent U.S.-Cuban
rapprochement might be part of the problem. They suspect Cuba is
demanding an end to the program, which the island blames for
brain-drain. There are also rumors that some Cubans tried to enter the
program fraudulently, causing delays for everyone.

In an email, the State Department said it doesn’t recruit Cuban doctors,
rather, “applicants avail themselves of the program voluntarily.”

Dangerous journey

Even so, many said they made the perilous journey overland from
Venezuela only because of the promise of the program. Almost everyone
interviewed had stories of being extorted by the police or robbed along
the way.

A 27-year-old dentist, who did not want to be named, said Colombian
guards stripped him naked and robbed him of 70,000 pesos, or about $38 —
all the money he had.

“People are taking advantage of us every step of the way,” he said.

Pérez said that Cubans streaming across the border are so commonplace
that people are waiting for them. “We’re being hunted,” he said.

While some of the health workers said they had planned to abandon their
posts, others said they felt they had no choice.

Annie Rodriguez, a 29-year-old rehabilitation specialist, was sent to
the Venezuelan town of Ospino, about 240 miles southwest of the capital.
There, she shared a room with three other doctors. They put up a
cardboard wall for privacy from their male roommates.

“The house had a dirt floor, there wasn’t a kitchen or a bathroom,” she
said. “When it flooded we’d have to put our luggage on the bed.”

In April 2014, she discovered she was pregnant — a violation of her
contract. It meant she would be sent back to the island and stripped of
the salary that had been deposited for her there.

She borrowed money from her mother and finally made it to the U.S.
Embassy in Bogotá seven months pregnant. On Dec. 9, however, her asylum
request was rejected. She said the shock of the news sent her into labor.

“Ever since then I’ve stayed here in Colombia because I don’t have any
options,” she said, as she held her 8-month-old daughter, Wilbelys
Antonella. “I can’t go back to Venezuela or Cuba.”

She’s been relying on friends and family to help pay her monthly $180 rent.

Pérez, who had done tours of Venezuela in 2004 and 2011, said he was
also “forced to abandon” his post.

Internacionalistas are given modest stipends but the bulk of their
salary is held in Cuba. When they’re sent home early — as he was being
threatened with — they’re denied even those modest savings. Without that
money, there was nothing to go home to, he said.

In Bogotá, Pérez shares a room with six other people and doesn’t know
how long he and his daughter will have to wait for an answer.

“We’re facing true hardship here,” Pérez said, “all because we went to
eat lunch.”

El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor contributed to this article.

Source: Cuban doctors fleeing Venezuela find themselves in limbo | Miami
Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/article31327064.html

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