The U.S. State Department on Thursday said a controversial program that gives defecting Cuban medical professionals legal status in the United States is not on the negotiating table, as the two nations begin restoring ties.
The question came as the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and other media have been reporting on hundreds of Cuban doctors, dentists and nurses who are stuck in Colombia after fleeing medical missions in Venezuela.
Some of them have been waiting for almost a year to be granted passage to the U.S. under the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. Asked if those delays were being driven by talks with Cuba, agency spokesman John Kirby said “absolutely not.”
“It is not at all related to our new policy with respect to Cuba,” he said. “There’s no tie, no connection.”
The program has always been a bone of contention for the island. Cuba provides free education to its doctors and sends many of them on missions around the world. The communist government says U.S. efforts that encourage them to defect are tantamount to stealing and promote brain-drain.
Asked about the issue, Kirby said Cuban diplomats “have regularly voiced concern about the program.” However, it didn’t come up during the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Havana last Friday, he said.
Kirby referred other questions about the program to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. The Miami Herald began seeking comment from the agency on Monday, but on Thursday officials said they needed additional time to respond to a list of questions.
Cuban medical professionals in Colombia’s capital say they fled Venezuela believing they could enter the U.S. parole program within weeks. Many have run out of money and are living in cramped conditions. On Saturday, hundreds of the doctors are expected to hold a rally in the southern part of the city to raise awareness about their plight.