Cuban doctors in Brazil say Bolsonaro betrayed them. They’re asking the U.S. for help

This group of Cuban doctors, photographed in 2013, was part of the Más Médicos program.
This group of Cuban doctors, photographed in 2013, was part of the Más Médicos program. AP File

More than 2,000 Cuban doctors in Brazil who defied Havana orders to go home have asked Sens. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez for help after the Brazilian government announced it would end its Mais Medicos program and not offer them new jobs.

A letter sent by the doctors to the Cuban-American senators urged them to help restore the Cuban Medical Professional Parole, a program that issued U.S. visas to island doctors who defected while working in third countries. President Barack Obama canceled the program in 2017.

The writers complained that they trusted Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s offer of political asylum and jobs and decided to break with the Cuban government three months ago. But now Havana bans them from returning to the island for eight years, and most of them have not found jobs as doctors.

“The situation of doctors like us who decided to remain in Brazil has been darkened by reality,” the letter said. “Most of us are now destitute and in precarious conditions, surviving with the help of friends and many people who were our patients and who once again show their gratitude.”

If the U.S. program cannot be restored, Rubio and Menendez should press Brazilian authorities to help the doctors find jobs, said the letter, which was obtained by el Nuevo Herald.

Mayra Pinheiro, coordinator of the Mais Medicos program, told the El Pais newspaper Thursday that the Bolsonaro administration would end the program and replace it with a new one, still being planned.

Pinheiro added that there will be no effort to replace the 8,300 Cuban medical personnel who were working in Brazil under the South American country’s Mais Medicos program, and that “all vacancies were filled with Brazilians.”

That would leave out the more than 2,000 Cuban medical personnel who remained in Brazil and hoped to work in the country’s health system. The Brazilian government is considering providing humanitarian aid to the Cubans through the Justice Ministry, according to officials.

The situation of the Cuban medical personnel grew even more complicated after the Cuban government refused to certify the diplomas of the doctors who didn’t return and began pressuring their relatives on the island because they “deserted.”

“We are living in subhuman conditions, and our lives are at risk. We trusted Bolsonaro, and he betrayed us. They have left us out of the program, alone, without family and in a country that rejects us,” one female doctor, 54, told el Nuevo Herald by telephone.

“We’re a group of women Cuban doctors, and we help one another, but people knock on our doors at night and we feel we’re being watched. We believe they are people sent by Cuba,” she said. “The communists in Brazil even blocked us from joining a march protesting the ban on returning to Cuba. We’re very afraid.”

Pinheiro created WhatsApp and Telegram groups in January to locate the Cuban medical personnel who had decided to stay in Brazil, and mentioned the possibility of holding a special exam to revalidate their diplomas.

She told El Pais that Cuba, not Brazil, broke the bilateral agreement under which the 8,300 medical personnel were working in Brazil.

The Cuban government pocketed 75 percent of the $3,300 that Brazil paid each doctor per month as part of the Mais Medicos program. The export of such services earns Havana nearly $10 billion per year, according to official figures.

Most of the Cubans who remained in Brazil have not taken the exam needed to revalidate their diplomas. Taking them was prohibited by Havana in an attempt to avert defections.

The head of Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine, Hermann Von Tniesehause, has said the government is “greatly concerned over the Cuban doctors who asked for asylum.” But he rejected allowing the Cubans to work as doctors before they revalidate their diplomas.

Cuba called home all the 8,300 medical personnel working in the Mais Medicos program in November after Bolsonaro demanded that they receive their full salaries and be allowed to bring their families to Brazil and revalidate their diplomas.

He offered political asylum to all the doctors who refused to return to the island, and government officials promised to help return them to the Mais Medicos program.