February 20, 2007

Cuban Doctors Defecting From Venezuela

For the last few years, Cuba has sent its doctors to Venezuela to provide free health care for impoverished citizens of its ally in the region. Hugo Chavez has welcomed the Cubans as a means of bringing closer ties between the two countries and to augment his nation's health-care system. However, the physicians defect in increasing numbers by crossing the border with Colombia, disillusioned with both Cuba and Venezuela:

Ariel Perez was, like thousands of fellow Cuban doctors, a devoted soldier in Fidel Castro's most important overseas mission -- providing medical care to the poor in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba's most vital ally. But last year, Perez and two Cuban companions, carrying rucksacks with a few belongings and holding just $1,300 among them, sneaked across the Colombian border and promptly defected. ...

Chávez and other government officials have declared the program, called Inside the Barrio, a success. But a Venezuelan medical association critical of the Chávez government has expressed reservations about the Cuban doctors' qualifications, and political opposition leaders have criticized the program for its lack of transparency. Cuban doctors are not permitted to talk to foreign journalists or diplomats. They must seek permission to travel outside of their assigned municipalities, and doctors who have defected say Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence operatives kept close tabs on their whereabouts.

The doctors in Bogota spoke of the pride they felt delivering care to the poor in the name of their small country, which has made health care a priority since Castro took power in 1959. But they also talked of being terrified working in Venezuelan neighborhoods buffeted by crime.

Most jumped at the chance to work overseas, seeing it as an opportunity to earn far more than the $15 a month they were paid in Cuba. But the workload was heavy -- from early morning until night, sometimes seven days a week. And the pay -- around $200 a month -- quickly evaporated in a country with high prices and double-digit inflation.

The Bush administration has tried to keep the information from becoming public. The process of granting asylum takes a significant period of time, and the applicants are in a precarious position during that time. Host countries also would prefer not to get involved in defections, and the lack of publicity allows everyone to look the other way.

It's a fascinating story nonetheless. Cuba has long pointed with pride to its health-care system, which it touts as cutting edge, and which Castro's government provides free for its citizens. The reality of their facilities tells a different story, as I posted two years ago. Pictures of Cilinico Quirigico's emergency room restroom give a better indication of the dangers of Castro's health-care system:

Doctors forced to work in these conditions understandably thought that a trip to Venezuela might provide an improvement. It certainly improved their salaries, which increased 1,400% percent. While the difference in buying power turned out to be significantly less than they imagined, it also gave them the opportunity to get out from under Castro's thumb -- and to a country that they could leave much easier that Cuba.

Many of them have left. Estimates range to 500 or more health-care professionals and their dependents who have fled both Chavez and Castro by either applying directly to our embassy in Caracas or by flight over the border into Colombia. A large number of them still await adjudication of their applications, in part because the US wants to ensure that no spies for either Castro or Chavez wind up with asylum.

Hopefully, the Bush administration can expedite the process and allow more of these freedom-seekers to realize their dreams.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, tourists defect from Cuban hospitality (via Babalu Blog):

A FAMILY are suing Thomas Cook after their dream trip to Cuba became the holiday from hell. Elaine Old, 44, claims their luxury hotel made the family sick.

She arrived at the resort only to find dirty beds, her toilet overflowing with human waste and food covered in flies.
Just three days into the four-star luxury break at the Brisas Guardalavaca Hotel, Holguin, Elaine and her family were left ill with a serious stomach bug.

But things turned from bad to worse when their elderly mother, Dorothy, 76, was left needing emergency hospital treatment after she slipped on the wet hotel floor and broke her leg.

The Sunderland Echo includes a video taken by the family that records some of the gastronomic surprises that awaited them in Cuba. Hint: those aren't capers in the mashed potatoes. It appears that some of the seasoning adds itself in the open servings.


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Why are so many Cuban medical professionals defecting? Perhaps they don't like being treated like chattel: Rarely are defections made public. Embassies in Latin America that receive requests keep quiet to protect the asylum-seekers and not fuel the ind... [Read More]