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U.S. leaves Cuban physicians in limbo

Despite an offer of asylum, dozens are stranded in Colombia.

March 08, 2007|Chris Kraul and Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writers

BARRANQUILLA, COLOMBIA — Family practitioner Alberto Hernandez suffers anxiety attacks. Dentist Norah Garcia is prone to bouts of uncontrollable sobbing. General practitioner Cesar Fernandez, 31, has high blood pressure.

They are among the tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, surgeons and dentists dispatched from their Cuban homeland as medical missionaries to some of the world's poorest countries, in the process earning hard currency for the communist regime. But instead of providing much-needed healthcare, they have been caught up in a wider struggle between leftist Latin American leaders and the Bush administration.

Last summer, the administration announced that any Cuban medical professional sent abroad was eligible for political asylum. Frustrated with their efforts in a program that took them to Venezuela's barrios, or hoping to start a new life in the United States, dozens of Cuban healthcare professionals sneaked across the Colombian border.

Now they're holed up in Colombia, unable to work, while U.S. authorities mull whether to accept them as political refugees.

"We don't know why it's taking so long. We hope the United States government hurries up and makes up its mind," said Ariel Perez, a general practitioner who shares a small apartment with Garcia and another Cuban dentist in southern Bogota.

The approval process would take one to two months, they were told. But several Cubans here say the process has dragged on for half a year.

"All our hopes and dreams are wrapped up in [Bush's] decree," said Garcia, a 46-year-old from Havana whose husband made it to Florida on a raft three years ago. "The uncertainty is the worst, not knowing what will happen while we sit here and do nothing."

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which is handling the applications, declined to comment on the process. But government officials who asked for anonymity said it could take a long time if applicants lacked key documentation such as passports and medical licenses.

Colombia has welcomed the Cuban defectors with less than open arms. Most have been denied visas or work permits while the U.S. Department of Homeland Security processes the applications. Colombia, though a close U.S. ally in the region, has no desire to encourage the deserters, analysts say. Bogota is also reluctant to offend Cuba or Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for whom the presence of Cuban doctors is an important policy and public relations initiative of his "21st century socialism."

Sleeping at a church

Hernandez, a 43-year-old from the Cuban city of Santa Clara, has been sleeping in a supply room of a local Pentecostal church. He was told in mid-February that his request for a Colombian residence visa had been denied and that he had 30 days to leave the country.

"I am in a limbo from which I don't see an exit," Hernandez said, adding that he is pinning his hopes on getting the U.S. visa before the 30 days are up. He says he has no idea where he will go otherwise.

Medicine is a foreign policy tool of Castro's: He is training about 12,000 students from 83 countries at the Latin American Medical School in Havana. Operation Miracle, a program staffed by Cubans and financed by Chavez, has flown thousands of poor Latin Americans to Havana for free eye surgery.

The programs are also a source of revenue for a country that has struggled since the collapse of its main benefactor, the Soviet Union. In Venezuela, the healthcare professionals' labors are exchanged for $1.5 billion in annual oil shipments that Chavez sends to Cuba.

In places such as the slums of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, the Cubans often are the first doctors the poor have ever seen. The working conditions are difficult. In the El Museo slum of Maracaibo, where Hernandez worked, there were rampant dysentery, malnutrition and kidney problems -- caused, he thought, by open sewage and appalling hygiene. Hours were long and the Cubans often suffered resentment from host country physicians or political opponents of Chavez.

The Venezuelan president, who was sworn in for a third term in January, is fiercely critical of the United States and has made no secret of his ambition to succeed Castro as Latin America's beacon of socialism. With tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue at his disposal, he has teamed up with Castro to bankroll medical assistance at home and in several countries to gain prestige and score diplomatic points.

Escalating defections from the Venezuela program and others come as no surprise. Last year, 30 doctors deserted the program in Bolivia even before the new U.S. hint of asylum, probably to pursue private practice in the region. Their departure from the mission after less than six months was an embarrassment for Havana and the allied government of leftist President Evo Morales. In 2004, 10 physicians working in South Africa refused to go back home.

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