By Tal Abbady | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 10, 2007
The Cuban government’s plan was for Beny Alfonso Rodriguez to help lead a group of 72 Cuban doctors on a medical mission in the town of Macarapana, Venezuela.
But Rodriguez, a former soldier, lasted four months. He joined the mission with one thing in mind: to flee Cuba.
“I was born into the revolution, but I didn’t choose it,” says Rodriguez, who arrived in Miami in April.
Rodriguez is among hundreds of Cuban medical personnel who have deserted their country’s overseas medical missions in recent months to apply for fast-track entry into the United States.
News of the U.S. government’s Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, launched in August 2006, quickly reached rural outposts in Venezuela and other countries. The policy allows Cuban doctors, nurses, administrators, lab technicians and other professionals working in humanitarian medical missions outside Cuba to apply at their host country’s U.S. embassy for entry into the United States. After undergoing a background check, most applicants are accepted, according to Ana Carbonell, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.
“The Castro regime has used these medical professionals as a vehicle for its international propaganda,” Carbonell said.
Carbonell said 1,000 Cuban medical personnel have entered the United States under the new policy. But there are glitches. A group of Cuban doctors in Colombia was stranded there for months after applying.
Diaz-Balart’s office and South Florida Cuban exile groups have helped spread the word about the policy and answered e-mail and telephone inquiries from hundreds of Cuban doctors.
Cuban exile activists say dozens of Cuban medical personnel have defected in Venezuela. In exchange for cheap oil for Cuba, about 21,000 Cuban doctors staff President Hugo Chavez’s free health-care program for the poor, called Barrio Adentro (Inside the Barrio) — the backbone of the Venezuelan leader’s popular socialist reforms.
“The number one fear of these doctors is that they’ll be deported back to Cuba. Where do they go in a country that’s friendly with the Castro regime? They don’t know who to trust,” said Camila Ruiz-Gallardo, of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Many of the doctors have received guidance from the foundation and another exile group, Solidarity Without Borders. The two groups formed a partnership in 2006 to help Cuban medical personnel reach the United States. With the foundation’s support, Solidarity has expanded a program, Barrio Afuera (Outside the Barrio), that provides doctors hiding in Venezuela or other countries with “safe houses,” money and information about the application process.
Those who reach Florida have also received information about how to become accredited doctors in the state.
As a key component of its foreign diplomacy, Cuba has dispatched doctors on international medical missions throughout the world since the early 1960s. Today, up to 40,000 Cuban medical personnel work in 68 countries on medical missions. In Cuba, they’re considered foot soldiers spreading Fidel Castro’s good will in needy communities around the world.
Castro supporters are harshly critical of deserters, especially since the Cuban government paid for their education.
“There’s this resentment on the part of Cubans sympathetic to the regime. They see these doctors as having sold out for the most craven of reasons,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C.
But some who have deserted missions in Venezuela said they saw a chance to flee Castro’s communist system without risking a high-seas voyage. Others jumped at the opportunity to earn 10 times the salary they earned in Cuba.
“I studied several ways of leaving Cuba,” said Rodriguez, 23. “I figured if I threw myself to the seas, I’d get captured. The medical missions are the only safe escape.”
Trained by his government to be a health administrator, Rodriguez arrived in Venezuela in September 2006. As the administrator and co-leader of a group of 72 doctors in Macarapana, he was in charge of ordering medical supplies and food for the small clinic where the doctors worked. He also coordinated transportation and dispatched doctors to patients’ homes in emergencies, earning around $160 a month. He said administrators in the missions are typically charged with monitoring doctors’ activities. Those who defect, he and others said, are sought by Venezuelan and Cuban officials.
With help from Venezuelans who oppose Chavez and sympathize with the Cuban doctors, Rodriguez packed some clothes, stuffed about $600 in his pocket and made his way to the Venezuelan island of Margarita in December.
In March he traveled to Colombia, where some Cuban doctors from Venezuelan missions have fled and applied for entry into the United States at the Bogota embassy. U.S. officials approved his application in a month. He now delivers pizzas at night in Miami and is looking for a day job.
Miguel Alfredo Jimenez, a doctor who specializes in sports medicine, served in a mission in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, from 2003 to 2005 monitoring the health of a group of athletes. He earned about $330 a month, up from $30 a month he earned in Havana.
When doctors in his mission prepared to return to Cuba in 2005, he told mission directors he wouldn’t be going with them. By then he had married a Venezuelan and was having trouble getting the Cuban government to allow her entry into Cuba.
For more than a year he worked as a physical therapist in Caracas, until he learned of the U.S. policy for doctors. He applied successfully, and he and his wife arrived in Miami with their 2-year-old son in July.
“It hurts to admit it,” Jimenez said of those who join missions to flee or earn better pay. “It doesn’t mean it’s not important in our profession to help others, but we’re in a grave situation in Cuba.”