Cuban doctors stranded in Colombia seek alternatives to reach the U.S.

Cuban migrants rest in a temporary shelter in Turbo, Antioquia, Colombia.
Cuban migrants rest in a temporary shelter in Turbo, Antioquia, Colombia. AFP/Getty Images

Annie Rodríguez Alvarez, a physical rehabilitation specialist from Ciego de Ávila, was arrested last week along with her 1 year-old daughter in the Colombian municipality of Turbo, Antioquia, while trying to join hundreds of Cubans en route to the United States who are stranded in a temporary shelter in that small village in the Gulf of Urabá.

Rodríguez, 30, defected from a Cuban medical mission in the state of Portuguesa, Venezuela, in 2014 to apply for the Cuban Medical Professional Parole, a special U.S. visa program for medical professionals who manage to escape international missions organized by Havana.

When she arrived in Colombia’s capital city of Bogotá to apply for the visa program, she was 7 months pregnant.

“I fled the mission because the conditions and mistreatment are horrible,” Rodríguez said. “Also, if you get pregnant they send you back to Cuba and take away the money you've earned during the mission.”

Rodríguez’s baby, Wilbelys Antonella, was born in La Victoria hospital, in the south region of Bogotá, but since her mother entered the country illegally, she does not qualify for citizenship under Colombian immigration laws. She only received a birth certificate that guarantees that Rodríguez is her mother, but does not have a Colombian passport.

Rodríguez has tried and failed four times to obtain the U.S. visa for the parole program established in 2006 for Cuban medical professionals fleeing medical missions organized by the Castro government.

Each time she has been told that her application lacks the necessary documentation, although Rodríguez has presented her medical degrees, documents from her work in Venezuela and her red passport — the official document issued by the Cuban government for medical personnel sent to other countries.

For almost two years, Rodríguez has survived with remittances that some friends in the U.S. send her and some money that her mother sends from Cuba, she said.

“Sometimes I don’t have enough money to even buy a yogurt for my daughter,” she said.

Rodríguez was released Wednesday night but immigration authorities told her that she and her daughter must appear in Bogotá’s immigration office within 15 days to rectify their legal status. If she decides to instead go to the temporary shelter in Turbo “overcrowded” by Cubans, the Institute of Family Welfare would take custody of her daughter.

“My daughter was never given the rights she deserves for being born in this country. She was even denied medical care in the hospital once,” Rodríguez said. “How are they going to say they will take her away from me?”

Rodríguez decided to go to Turbo hoping that the Colombian government would set up an airlift to Mexico for the hundreds of Cuban migrants stranded there who want to continue their journey to the U.S.

The cases of medical professionals rejected by the Cuban Medical Professional parole program have increased, she said, and others wait for a long time after they apply before getting a response from U.S. authorities. The trend has created uncertainty and despair among the Cuban doctors in Colombia.

Some, encouraged by the hope that the migration crisis in Turbo will result in the establishment of an airlift similar to those organized by Costa Rica earlier this year and, more recently, Panama, have decided to join the Cubans stranded in that municipality.

“That's the hope of everybody here: to reach the United States and have a better life with freedom and everything that we don’t have in Cuba, where we are oppressed and cannot speak or say what we think,” Rodríguez said.

Between October 2014 and September 2015, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services received 2,335 applications for the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, according to the latest statistics. Of those cases, 367 were rejected, 26 were closed and 217 are pending. The rate of cases denied is 18.1 percent against a 81.9 percent of approved.

Yosvani Jimenez Moreno, an optometrist from Granma in eastern Cuba, said that two months ago he was denied the professional parole and, although he applied again, he decided to go to Turbo because he thinks “it’s more feasible” and in Bogotá they are “without any help.”

“Supposedly, here in Turbo there are many international journalists and the representatives from the United Nations,” he said.

Jimenez, 27, was also arrested along with Rodríguez and released a few hours later.

“We are hoping that they set up an airlift to Mexico. I want somebody to help me get out of here. My purpose when I fled the mission wasn’t to stay here in Colombia,” he said.

Adrian Perez, 24, an intensive care specialist from Havana who left a Cuban medical mission in Maturin, Venezuela, said that there is “no certainty” in the special parole program.

“You take the risk for nothing,” Perez said.

Due to an increasing number of Cuban professionals fleeing medical missions, the chiefs of Perez’s brigade in Venezuela withdrew the doctors’ passports to prevent them from escaping. However, Perez fled to Bogotá, but his request for the parole was denied.

“Now I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I'm just waiting to see what happens, if they find a solution for the situation in Turbo.”

Perez lives in Bogotá with three other Cuban doctors. Yanquiel Gonzalez Espinosa, one of his roommates, said that he and his wife have been waiting over three months for a response about their application for the parole. Abilio Fernández, another doctor who lives with them, said that his application was denied and he had to present it again.

According to Fernández, about 200 Cuban medical professionals are stranded in Bogotá after fleeing their missions. He said that the cases denied are becoming more frequent, and several doctors have already gone to Turbo and many other are considering that option.

Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of Solidarity Without Borders, a Miami-based based organization that helps healthcare professionals find jobs in the U.S., said that his organization will assess “whether there is again a crisis with the parole program like it happened last year.”

In August of 2015, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald reported that hundreds of Cuban medical professionals were stranded in limbo in Colombia while waiting to be accepted into the special parole program. Florida lawmakers Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, all Cuban Americans, urged for a solution and in September the delivery of visas began to speed up.

About the current situation, Ros-Lehtinen said that “although each case presented to our embassies abroad have their own unique characteristics, we have helped many Cuban medical professionals through the process on a case by case basis.”

“The Castro regime is the ultimate cause of so many medical professionals fleeing their placement as their homeland lacks human rights, liberty, and a future for everyday Cubans,” she said in a statement.

Meanwhile Annie Rodríguez, whom immigration authorities already warned to return to Bogotá with her 1 year-old daughter, said she won’t do it.

“I'm not going to Bogotá. I'm going to leave this country somehow,” Rodríguez said. “I don’t know how, but I will.”

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