Cuba’s ‘deserting’ doctors fear losing the American Dream amid policy shift

A group of Cuban medical professionals gather in Soacha, a suburb of Bogotá, Colombia. Changing immigration policies have cast a shadow over their ability to move to the United States.
A group of Cuban medical professionals gather in Soacha, a suburb of Bogotá, Colombia. Changing immigration policies have cast a shadow over their ability to move to the United States.

In a tiny house in a sprawling suburb of this capital city, a group of Cubans — all of them doctors, dentists and medical professionals — huddled around a television Friday watching Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, hoping he might shed some light on their future.

He didn’t.

“I can’t say we were surprised he didn’t say anything about Cuba. He has to defend U.S. interests first,” said Jorge Carlos Rodríguez, a 26-year-old ophthalmologist. “But we are hoping he does say something about us soon.”

When the Obama administration ended its controversial immigration policy for Cubans on Jan. 12, it left thousands stranded in South and Central America with no guarantee they’d be able to enter the United States. Among the elite group of would-be immigrants now in limbo: Cuba’s medical workers.

For a decade, the Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) program has given the island’s internacionalistas — doctors working abroad on behalf of the communist government — the right to apply for expedited U.S. visas. As a result, thousands of Cubans have deserted their “medical missions” in places like Venezuela and Brazil.

Cuba said the program was tantamount to stealing: robbing professionals that the cash-strapped island had educated.

In his final press conference as president, President Barack Obama addressed his decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy. “That was a carryover of a old way of thinking,” Obama said.

But medical workers say the policy offered one of the few ways out of a system they described as indentured servitude — and they’re hoping that the incoming Trump administration will revive it.

Barrio Adentro

Rodríguez arrived in Venezuela on Nov. 2 to work in “Barrio Adentro,” the government’s signature program that uses Cuban doctors to provide free healthcare. His team, however, was immediately confronted with Venezuela’s economic chaos and paranoia.

“For the first 10 days that I was there, the only food I was given was boiled macaroni,” he said. “There was nothing else for us to eat even though we were all medical professionals.”

By the time he was sent to his “mission” in Lara state, he said officials had branded him a flight risk because he has a brother in the United States. Rodríguez said he feared he was going to be punished and sent back to Cuba so he decided to run, crossing the border into Colombia in mid-November to apply for the parole program.

In total, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said it received 2,335 applications for the program between October 2014 and September 2015, and 82 percent of them were approved.

It’s unclear how many Cubans remain here awaiting visas under the now defunct program. But Maykel Palacio, the administrator of a WhatsApp and Facebook group for the doctors in Colombia, said he estimates there are a little more than 600 people, and some of them have been waiting for more than five months.

While they wait, many spend their time in group houses studying English, surfing the internet on their cellphones and trying to move around as little as possible to make their money last.

In this pressure-cooker environment, rumors run wild.

McClatchy correspondent Franco Ordoñez talks to some of the Cubans who were en route to the United States and are now stuck at the border in Mexico, following an abrupt end to immigration policy for Cubans known as "wet foot, dry foot."

Shortly after the policy change, word spread that those who hadn’t already received visas would be left out in the cold. Then they heard they might still be eligible but were being lumped in with every other foreign doctor trying to enter the United States. Then, on Wednesday, hopes soared again when seven people were given their parole visas.

“There is a lot of stress and fear. On social media, there are all sorts of rumors floating around,” said Ibrahím Mustelier, a 25-year-old doctor. “We’d like someone from the U.S. government to stand up and say: this is how it’s going to work.”

Medical ‘deserters’

Even so, most say they have no other option but to hope for the best. They can’t stay in Colombia indefinitely, and if they return to Venezuela, they’ll be deported to Cuba and an uncertain future.

While in Venezuela, the doctors were paid about 27,000 bolivares a month (less than $10 at the time and a starvation wage in Venezuela, although that salary has been bumped up recently). But the bulk of their money is held in Cuba by the government. However, as soon as they abandon the program, those accounts are seized and their medical titles back home are voided — years of study are simply erased from their records.

“It’s impossible for us to go back,” said Efrén Luis Izquierdo, a 26-year-old doctor. “From the moment we get off the plane in Cuba we’re considered scum, political pariahs.”

The group said they would never be allowed to work as doctors again or hold any job worthy of the years they’ve put into study.

The level of rejection against medical “deserters” is a direct reflection of how important the doctors are to Cuba’s foreign policy and its very survival.

First brigades

The island began sending medical brigades abroad in 1963 — the first cohort went to Algeria. Since then, almost 132,000 doctors have worked in the program, according to a 2014 article in the state-run Granma newspaper. Currently, as many as 50,000 Cuban doctors are thought to be working abroad.

Foreign governments pay the communist island for the doctors’ work, making them an important source of revenue. Perhaps nowhere is the program more vital than Venezuela, which established the free health clinics staffed by Cubans in 2003.

In exchange for the Cuban workers, 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. And President Nicolás Maduro said that from 2003-2016, Barrio Adentro had saved more than 1.4 million lives.

Doctor dreams

Mustelier said that many doctors were deserting to defend the profession they loved. After spending six years in medical school, he ended up at an office in rural Cuba where his primary role was to spray the town with insecticide.

When he got the chance to go to Venezuela, he said he spent as much time trying to recruit patients to pump up the statistics at his clinic as he did tending to the needy.

Rodríguez said his version of the American Dream includes the possibility of practicing medicine in some form.

“I know it’s going to be hard and that we’re going to have to study a lot,” he said of making the transition to the U.S. “But we’ve never lost the dream of being doctors.”

Even amid their doubts, the Cubans said they know they’re the lucky ones. Some of their colleagues didn’t make it out in time. Others are in a terrifying limbo: they had already abandoned their missions but hadn’t filed their paperwork.

The Obama administration on Thursday announced that paperwork for parole consideration under CMPP would be processed only if it was submitted by 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, when the halt to the CMPP program as well as the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy took effect.

“For the program to be eliminated with a pen-stroke just isn’t fair,” Izquierdo said. “There were people in transit — trying to get to a place where they could apply — and now they have nowhere to go because they can’t stay here and they can’t go back.”

On Aug. 11, 2016, Donald Trump gave his thoughts on the 'wet foot, dry foot' Cuban immigration policy as part of a wide-ranging interview with Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei focused on South Florida issues.

El Nuevo Herald’s Mario J. Pentón contributed to this report.

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter: @jimwyss