Working in Venezuela, a country where they often had to wait in line for hours to buy food, even small gestures were welcome. So Félix Pérez, his daughter and two colleagues — all Cuban health workers sent there as part of the island’s foreign-aid program — jumped at the chance when they were invited to a neighbor’s house for lunch.
Later that day, however, their supervisors accused them of breaking bread with a member of Venezuela’s opposition.
“They took away our cellphones and our passports — they essentially took everything so we wouldn’t be able to communicate,” recalls Pérez, a 50-year-old rehabilitation specialist. “We knew they were going to end our mission and send us back to Cuba, so we decided to flee to Colombia.”
In this thriving capital, they were expecting quick and safe passage to the United States under the 2006 Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, tailor-made for the island’s health workers. But six months later, Pérez and his daughter are still waiting for a response from the U.S. Embassy. Their money has run out and they spend their days playing cards in a cramped home with other Cubans caught in limbo.
Exiles here say they’ve registered some 250 Cuban health workers in Bogotá waiting to go to the United States. Most came here expecting their cases to be resolved within 30 to 90 days, but some have waited as long as seven months without a response, or only to be turned down.
Colombia’s foreign ministry and the U.S. Embassy did not immediately respond to interview requests about the delays due to a national holiday.
The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald visited five group homes where dozens of Cuban health workers were crammed into small living quarters, often sharing mattresses and living day-to-day on borrowed money.
The men and women are the face of Cuba’s international aid. The island began sending medical brigades abroad in 1963 — the first cohort went to Algeria. Since then, almost 132,000 doctors have worked as internacionalistas, according to a 2014 article in the state-run Granma newspaper. Currently, more than 50,000 Cubans are working abroad.
Governments pay the communist island for the doctors, making them an important source of revenue. And perhaps nowhere is the program more vital than in Venezuela, which in 2003 established the “Barrio Adentro” program — free healthcare centers staffed by Cubans.
In exchange, Venezuela sends crude oil and cash back to Cuba. During 2003-13 the state-run PDVSA oil company pumped $22.4 billion dollars into the program. Venezuela Health Minister Francisco Armada told state-run VTV television there are more than 10,000 Cuban health professionals in Venezuela, and that since 2003 they had provided 617 million free consultations and saved more than a million lives.
But many of those health workers complain that once they arrived in Venezuela they were treated like indentured servants.
Discel Rodriguez, a 42-year-old nurse, said he was forced to live with five other doctors in confined quarters. They had a 6 p.m. curfew and were discouraged from making friends in the community.
“At least in Cuba you could live in a house with the people that you cared about,” he said. “But Venezuela was punishment — it was a prison.”
As food shortages became a problem, doctors cycling into the program brought their own beans, garlic and personal-care items from the impoverished island, he said.
Crime was also rampant. One of his supervisors was robbed at gunpoint by two youths on a bicycle.
“It made me so angry because I would see little old ladies getting mugged,” he said. “Venezuela is so sad.”
Rodriguez fled to Colombia early this year with $600 dollars in his pocket, expecting he could survive for a month or two as he applied for a U.S. visa. Five months later, he’s still waiting for news.
“I’ve had to sell my children’s computer [in Cuba], I’ve had to sell their television,” he said, as he has struggled to pay his $150 monthly rent. “If we could work or do something while we waited life would be a little better. But right now things are very tough.”
Asked about the delays, the U.S. State Department referred questions to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. That agency said it could not immediately provide answers to a series of questions.
Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said she and her legislative colleagues would be sending a joint letter demanding answers.
“The Cuban Medical Professionals Program (CMPP) was designed to help those who desert a Cuban medical mission find refuge in the United States after being forced to serve the Castro regime abroad,” she said in a statement to the Miami Herald. “If these applicants are eligible under CMPP, we would like to know why there has been a delay in processing these visas and what, if any, reason exists for that delay.”
Among the doctors in Colombia, however, speculation about the delays is one more way to kill time. Some think the recent U.S.-Cuban rapprochement might be part of the problem. They suspect Cuba is demanding an end to the program, which the island blames for brain-drain. There are also rumors that some Cubans tried to enter the program fraudulently, causing delays for everyone.
In an email, the State Department said it doesn’t recruit Cuban doctors, rather, “applicants avail themselves of the program voluntarily.”
Even so, many said they made the perilous journey overland from Venezuela only because of the promise of the program. Almost everyone interviewed had stories of being extorted by the police or robbed along the way.
A 27-year-old dentist, who did not want to be named, said Colombian guards stripped him naked and robbed him of 70,000 pesos, or about $38 — all the money he had.
“People are taking advantage of us every step of the way,” he said.
Pérez said that Cubans streaming across the border are so commonplace that people are waiting for them. “We’re being hunted,” he said.
While some of the health workers said they had planned to abandon their posts, others said they felt they had no choice.
Annie Rodriguez, a 29-year-old rehabilitation specialist, was sent to the Venezuelan town of Ospino, about 240 miles southwest of the capital. There, she shared a room with three other doctors. They put up a cardboard wall for privacy from their male roommates.
“The house had a dirt floor, there wasn’t a kitchen or a bathroom,” she said. “When it flooded we’d have to put our luggage on the bed.”
In April 2014, she discovered she was pregnant — a violation of her contract. It meant she would be sent back to the island and stripped of the salary that had been deposited for her there.
She borrowed money from her mother and finally made it to the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá seven months pregnant. On Dec. 9, however, her asylum request was rejected. She said the shock of the news sent her into labor.
“Ever since then I’ve stayed here in Colombia because I don’t have any options,” she said, as she held her 8-month-old daughter, Wilbelys Antonella. “I can’t go back to Venezuela or Cuba.”
She’s been relying on friends and family to help pay her monthly $180 rent.
Pérez, who had done tours of Venezuela in 2004 and 2011, said he was also “forced to abandon” his post.
Internacionalistas are given modest stipends but the bulk of their salary is held in Cuba. When they’re sent home early — as he was being threatened with — they’re denied even those modest savings. Without that money, there was nothing to go home to, he said.
In Bogotá, Pérez shares a room with six other people and doesn’t know how long he and his daughter will have to wait for an answer.
“We’re facing true hardship here,” Pérez said, “all because we went to eat lunch.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Enrique Flor contributed to this article.