14ymedio, Mario J. Pentón, Bogota, 28 February 2018 — When Dayana Suárez escaped from the medical mission in the Venezuelan state Lara, the United States’ Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) program, which was created in 2006 to provide refuge for healthcare professionals fleeing the missions entrusted by La Havana, did not already exist.
Suárez is a dentist. She arrived in Colombia just over a year ago in the hope of reconstructing her life there but the impossibility of being able to legalise her immigration status forced her to go to the jungle in order to reach the Southern border of the United States to ask for political asylum. This same decision has been made by many Cuban doctors who were stranded in Bogota after the former president Barack Obama’s sudden decision to get rid of the CMPP in January 2017.
“I knew that the Parole no longer existed but I could not stay in the hell of Venezuela, neither could I return to Cuba because I feared for my future,” states the doctor on a phone call from Mexico to 14ymedio.
The young woman of 27 years recounts that she was part way through her journey through the Panamanian jungles with a group of Cubans who abandoned her when she was having an asthma attack. For 17 days she had to deal with impractical paths and the dangers of a tropical forest alone.
“My feet were ruined by the walking. When I left the forest I could not even open my mouth because the fear squeezed it so hard that my jaw remained closed”, she relays.
Dayana received the help of the Panamanian authorities and indigenous communities. After slightly recovering she continued her journey and now she is waiting in Mexico for a letter of safe passage that will allow her to arrive at the Southern border of the United States to ask for political asylum. It is not guaranteed that they will grant it but she has “no other choice” but to try it, in her opinion.
“I ended up with grade three herpes, but if I had to I would do this journey again because I want to achieve freedom”, the doctor said.
The presence of doctors and professionals from the island who have escaped from Venezuela is concealed by the increase in Venezuelans emigrating from their country, causing a real humanitarian crisis in Colombia. According to data from Migration Colombia, more than 550,000 Venezuelans remain in the neighbouring country, many of whom are there without documents.
For Misael Hernández, a 27 year-old doctor from the province of Guantanamo, the jungle is not the route to follow. Hernández is undocumented in Colombia after having escaped the state of Sucre last year accompanied by his Venezuelan wife.
“We grew up in Cuba with an education system that taught you to serve the State. When you go on the mission you believe that you are helping a brother country and that you will be well received there, but as soon as you step on foreign land you realise that it is all a farce, a pure demagogy”, says Hernández.
Reality, however, hit him instantaneously. Barely 15 days had passed since he graduated as a doctor when he was informed that his services were required in Venezuela. After a waiting a week in Venezuela’s Maiquetia airport for his position, they sent him to Sucre, a state which has been destroyed by crime and organised crime.
“They put me in charge of a Comprehensive Diagnosis Centre (CDI). There I had to deal with the lack of medication and equipment”, he explains.
Hernández complains that the Cuban medical mission’s Venezuelan contingents falsified the revenue and medical costs. “We had to have the rooms filled by a certain percentage and use more expensive medicines to treat infections and other common illnesses. It was the way in which the Cuban government could declare more costs to Venezuela in order to obtain more benefits”, he explains.
Cuba has medical professionals deployed in 62 countries and they are its principal source of foreign currency. According to official statistics, Cuba obtains more than 11.5 billion dollars each year for the work of its professionals overseas, but the salaries of such workers rarely exceed 60 dollars a month.
The doctor recalls that more than once criminals put a gun to his head and demanded that he bring the lifeless bodies of other criminals wounded by bullets back to life: “one day they brought one with their guts out. I had to call an ambulance and scream that he was alive, even though it was not true, in order to save my life”.
Another evening he was the victim, along with a Venezuelan nurse, of a robbery in the CDI. “We remained silent whilst they were stealing so that they did not kill us. It was terrifying”, he recounts with his voice broken.
Hernández decided to flee to Colombia along with his wife, of Venezuelan origin. In order to leave the country he had to use shortcuts because the Venezuelan border force does not allow professionals from Cuba using their official red passport to leave the country by land. Since then he has been working illegally and is in Colombia without any documentation. “It is tough. It is difficult but it will always be better than being in Venezuela”, he says.
Many doctors and Cuban professionals live in the popular areas of the Kennedy district in Bogota, the Colombian capital. They have lost hope that the United States will resume the programme that allowed them to be recognised as refugees. “Many of the doctors are in Colombia, they have not had much choice but to join us and try to work here in such conditions”, tells Hernández, who calculates that at least 1,000 Cuban professionals are in the country.
Doctor Julio César Alfonso, president of the association Solidarity without Borders, an NGO with a headquarters in Miami that is dedicated to assisting professionals from Cuba that are escaping from tertiary countries, says that they are continuing to work alongside Florida’s members of congress to restore the programme that was removed by Obama.
“If it is not the Cuban Medical Professional Parole, it will be another similar programme which will allow Cuban workers to escape from this form of slavery”, he tells 14ymedio, although he refuses to offer more details. Alfonso says that he remains in contact with dozens of doctors in third countries who are still fleeing despite the end of the North American programme.
The main obstacle to the creation of a similar programme to the Parole is, according to Alfonso, “the agenda of the current president Donald Trump”, who is looking to regulate the flow of migration to the United States.
“Cuban doctors are still fleeing despite the fact that the Parole programme no longer exists. The Cuban government always said that the doctors left because they were tempted by the United States. Well are still leaving, indicating that the programme is closer to home”.
This episode forms part of the series “the new era of Cuban migration” undertaken by 14ymedio, the New Herald and Radio Ambulante with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Translated by: Hannah Copestake