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Slow-motion asylum

Having encouraged Cuban doctors working in Venezuela to defect, the U.S. should expedite their requests.

March 10, 2007

AILING CUBAN DICTATOR Fidel Castro has precious few propaganda chits left to play anymore. His regime also suffers from an acute shortage of oil and foreign currency. How to kill three birds with one stone? Send one of the communist island's few excess exportables -- doctors -- to Hugo Chavez's healthcare-starved Venezuela in exchange for nearly 100,000 barrels of sharply discounted oil a day.

More than 20,000 Cuban medical personnel currently live in Venezuela, dispensing free care where Chavez tells them to (often in dangerous neighborhoods; at least five have reportedly been killed) for paltry pay. They are monitored closely by security personnel, forbidden from speaking to foreign journalists or diplomats, restricted in their movements and face eight years in prison back home should they walk off the job.

Last August, the Bush administration, in an effort to win freedom for the indentured medical servants and give its two least-favorite Latin American presidents a black eye, offered all Cuban healthcare expatriates special political asylum. But even though an estimated 480-plus asylum-seekers have taken enormous risks (smuggling themselves illegally into Colombia, for example, to avoid Venezuelan security forces), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has failed to live up to its end of the bargain.

The approval process, which was advertised as taking about two months, has dragged on for more than half a year in some cases. Dozens of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are languishing in Colombia on rapidly expiring visas, unable to work where they are and unwelcome so far in the United States.

Homeland Security says the applications require thorough examinations, a process made more difficult because many of the doctors who sneaked out of Venezuela left their passports behind. At least 69 medical asylum applicants have been rejected, according to the Chicago Tribune. Care and caution are indeed prudent, particularly to guard against Cuba's vigorous espionage program, but the process needs to be expedited.

U.S. immigration policy for Cubans has always contained puzzling contradictions and largely symbolic gestures. Granting asylum to a few hundred doctors is not going to have much impact on the great game of U.S.-Cuba relations. But it's a promise to individuals who have never known freedom and who have been used as pawns for both propaganda and cash. As long as Castro's regime sputters on, it's a promise we need to honor.

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