When Elisabet Casero, a 26-year-old Cuban dentist, decided to abandon her assignment in Venezuela earlier this month, she knew the stakes. She would have to cross a crime-infested border to get to Colombia, forfeit her life savings in Cuba and be considered a pariah on the island.
But the risks seemed worth it. She planned to apply for a U.S. visa under the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, tailor-made for the island’s health professionals.
But just hours after she was smuggled into Colombia on Jan. 12, on the back of a motorcycle, she heard the news: the Obama administration had canceled the parole program.
“I got so depressed,” Casero said. “But I have no choice but to move forward. I can’t go back to Cuba and much less Venezuela.”
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Now Casero finds herself in a precarious situation: unable to continue to the United States, unable to work in Colombia and unwilling to return home.
Hundreds of Cubans are stranded in the Americas after the Obama administration ended the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy as well as the parole program for medical professionals earlier this month.
The administration has said it will continue processing parole applications submitted before the program was canceled, but it hasn’t said what might happen to people like Casero. And while it’s not clear how many people might be in her situation, Cuban doctors in Bogotá said they knew of at least two more cases of people who had already abandoned their jobs but hadn’t been able to apply for the program.
In Cuba, being chosen to work in an international medical mission is considered prestigious. But the reality can be stark. Casero said she was paid 27,000 bolivares a month — less than $10 — while she worked in the northern Venezuelan state of Valencia. To pay for her escape, she had to save as much as possible.
“I couldn’t even pay for the transportation to the office. Our Cuban bosses also did not give us money for water and cooking gas,” she said. “They told us we had to rely on the ‘solidarity’ of friends.”
She said her supervisors also encouraged the doctors to get their Venezuelan patients to pay for a portion of the care, even though it’s supposed to be free.
Her decision to join the Cuban government’s “medical mission” to Venezuela was not free of pressure either, Casero said.
“We were told that we should go on the mission. If you refuse, you can even lose your career because they brand you as a counterrevolutionary,” the dentist said.
In Venezuela she says she was required to work long hours and was closely monitored to make sure she met her quota of patients. (Venezuela pays Cuba for the service with oil.)
Casero has been biding her time at a group house in Bogotá, hoping for a miracle. Even though she’s barred from working in Colombia, she’s hoping an offer might come in from somewhere. And she’s starting to explore the idea of seeking asylum in other countries.
But going home isn’t an option, she said. Deserting a medical mission is almost seen as an act of treason.
“My record is stained, they’ll take away my degree and you’re looked down on by everyone,” she says. “You were once a dentist but now you’re a nobody.”
Asked if she thought that the medical parole program might be revived under the new Trump administration, she was pessimistic.
“I have no hope at all,” she said. “And I have no idea what to do next, except to wait.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter: @jimwyss