Cuban doctors who worked in Brazil sue international organization alleging forced labor

Cuban doctors Ramona Matos, left, and Tatiana Caraballo attend a press conference Wednesday in Doral announcing a federal lawsuit against the Pan American Health Organization for its role in trafficking thousands of Cuban doctors and other health care professionals.
Cuban doctors Ramona Matos, left, and Tatiana Caraballo attend a press conference Wednesday in Doral announcing a federal lawsuit against the Pan American Health Organization for its role in trafficking thousands of Cuban doctors and other health care professionals.

Cuban doctors who abandoned the Mais Medicos program in Brazil sued the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for allegedly benefiting from what they deem as a forced labor scheme.

The lawsuit, filed in a Miami federal court on Friday, alleges that PAHO, a United Nations agency based in Washington D.C., “has knowingly provided, obtained and benefited from the forced labor and trafficking of more than 10,000 Cuban doctors and medical and health care professionals in Brazil between 2013 and the present.”

According to the lawsuit, PAHO sent to Cuba about $1.3 billion paid by the Brazilian government and kept $75 million for acting as an intermediary in the Mais Medicos program. Of those $1.3 billion, only $125 million were used to pay the Cuban doctors. The alleged scheme resulted in the Cuban government pocketing about 80 percent of those payments.

“We are a monetary instrument for the government to fill its coffers of money and we continue to be slaves to them,” Dr. Ramona Matos said at a press conference Friday at Doral City Hall. Matos said that when she was part of the program in 2014, she was paid $400 per month and the Cuban government would withhold $600 in a “frozen” account in Cuba, to which the doctors did not have access to until they returned to the island.

“We Cubans were controlled by a PAHO advisor, we were not allowed to leave the place, we could not visit Brasilia. All the others [doctors of other nationalities working under the program] could travel but they did not let us visit anything, “ she said. On one occasion, she tried to go out to buy bread and cigarettes after 6 p.m. but Cuban handlers did not allow it because it was passed curfew.

Another Cuban doctor, Tatiana Caraballo, who spent three years in the program, said that Cuban authorities harassed her when she took one of her children to live with her in Brazil. Caraballo said that the Brazilian government issued a three-year visa to her son but that upon returning from a vacation on the island, Cuban authorities “forced” her to sign a new contract that would allow her to stay in the program with the caveat that her son could not remain with her in Brazil for more than three months at a time.

“It was a constant harassment until I decided to leave the mission and seek asylum” in the US, said Caraballo, who came to the U.S. through the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, eliminated by former President Barack Obama in January 2017. “Within a month of being in the United States , my family in Cuba was evicted, my daughter and mother, from a house I built with my money. They were thrown out on the streets ... because I had betrayed the motherland.“

Matos, Caraballo and two other doctors are the named plaintiffs in what the lawyers in the case presented as a class action suit. If the court certifies that status, around 3,500 Cuban doctors who now reside in the United States and participated in that program in Brazil could join the lawsuit. The court may decide in the future whether to allow Cuban doctors in other countries to join the class action, said Samuel J. Dubbin, the lead plaintiff attorney.

Mais Medicos was created by the government of Dilma Rousseff to hire Cuban doctors who would provide medical care in remote areas of Brazil. According to official documents, Brazil initially paid $4,000 for each doctor. The government of Cuba, in turn, paid $1,000 to doctors. The lawsuit alleges that the Cuban government kept up to 85 percent of the payments made by Brazil.

The export of medical services is one of the main sources of income for the island’s government. The contracts are signed by the Cuban Commercial Society of Cuban Medical Services. Currently, Cuba has 36,000 professionals in 67 countries in the so-called “collaborative missions.” Of those, 18,000 are doctors, Yaira Jiménez, spokeswoman for Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said.

The plaintiffs allege that “nothing” in PAHO’s Constitution justifies that the agency benefits from a scheme that violates international and United States laws on human trafficking and human rights. Dubbin believes that judges will not grant immunity to PAHO, as it has happened on other occasions with United Nations agencies, because their participation in the payment scheme of Mais Medicos was not accidental, but deliberate.

PAHO did not respond to a request for comment.

“PAHO, which receives 50 percent of its budget from US taxpayers and is based in Washington, has to answer why it has been an accomplice of a military dictatorship that uses human beings as commodities,” said Ambassador Otto Reich, former assistant Secretary of State, at the press conference.

“Those countries and international organizations that have benefited from, or have facilitated, abusive labor practices must cease doing so until basic labor standards regarding safe working conditions, the prohibition of forced or compulsory labor, and fair remuneration are followed,” Miami Republican Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart said in a statement. “The abuse and exploitation of Cuba’s medical professionals must end.”

The demand further complicates the situation of the Cuban government, which has received international criticism for withdrawing from Mais Medicos, after Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro decided to condition its continuity to the full payment of salaries to the Cuban doctors.

Official documents obtained by the Brazilian press show that Cuba initially requested $8,000 for each doctor and that the Mais Medicos program emerged during those negotiations to provide legal coverage to the hiring of Cuban doctors. The Cuban government has said that Bolsonaro’s statements were “unacceptable” and blamed the president-elect for leaving millions of Brazilians without medical attention. Cuba also denied that its offer to send doctors to Brazil was prior to the creation of the program.

Following the controversy, Cuba’s appointed President Miguel Díaz-Canel took to Twitter to highlight the so-called “altruism” of the Cuban doctors who returned to the island.

“There is no money in the world to pay for what our health professionals do,” said Jiménez, the spokeswoman for the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

Said Matos, the Cuban doctor and plaintiff in the lawsuit: “That’s why they pulled out the doctors, knowing that Bolsonaro was going to offer them their full salary and that they could work in Brazil. It was not a humanitarian mission. We are a currency.“

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

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