Thursday, June 23, 2016

Crisis in Venezuela makes life hell for Cuban medical professionals

Crisis in Venezuela makes life hell for Cuban medical professionals

A growing number of Cuban health professionals working in Venezuela are
fleeing or seeking second jobs as a result of the economic and political
crisis in the South American country.

Tania Tamara Rodríguez never thought she would escape from the Cuban
medical teams in Venezuela and become a "deserter," now blocked by her
government from returning to her country for eight years.

But the many difficulties that Cuban health professionals face in
Venezuela as a result of the economic and political crisis in the South
American country are leading a growing number to seek refuge in
neighboring countries or obtain other jobs to make ends meet.

"Conditions for the doctors and other health professionals are horrible.
You live all the time under the threat of being returned to Cuba, losing
the job. You're afraid they will take all the money – which is in Cuban
government accounts – and revoke your assignment (to Venezuela) if they
want to discipline you," said Rodríguez, who now lives in Tampa.

While she worked in a medical laboratory in Venezuela as part of Cuba's
"Mission to the Neighborhood" medical aid program, the government
deposited Rodríguez's salary of 700 pesos per month (about $29) to an
account in Cuba and gave her access to $280 dollars (U.S.) per month and
a card for 25 percent off at the TRD shops in Cuba, which offer
hard-to-find imported goods at dollar prices.

In 2014, after acknowledging that its "export of health services" was
earning the island more than $8.2 billion a year, the Cuban government
increased salaries in the domestic health sector. Even with the
increases, which took effect after the public health sector had
dismissed 109,000 employees, Cuban doctors are still not earning even
close to the international median.

Rodríguez went to Venezuela in early 2015 from the eastern city of
Holguín, where she worked in the laboratory of the Máximo Gómez Báez.
She agreed to join one of Cuba's many medical teams in foreign countries
in hopes of providing better opportunities for her 13-year-old daughter.

Cuba currently has about 28,810 medical personnel in Venezuela working
in public health programs that, according to President Nicolás Maduro,
represent a priority sector for his government and has cost Venezuela
more than $250 billion since 1999.

The payment arrangement, essentially trading Venezuelan oil for Cuban
medical personnel, has been repeatedly denounced by critics as a way for
the Venezuelan government to cover up its subsidies to Cuba. Cuba then
resells part of the refined oil products on the international market.

Rodríguez, who arrived in the United States after a few months in
Venezula under the U.S. government's special parole program for Cuban
medical personnel who defect, saved the money needed to buy her daughter
a plane ticket to the United States from Cuba. But when her family took
the girl to an Interior Ministry office to apply for a passport, she was
denied because the mother was still listed as working in Venezuela.

"I don't understand how I can be listed as working when I have been in
the United States for more than a year. Someone must be pocketing the
money the Venezuelan government is paying for me," Rodríguez said.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS)
agency, 2,335 petitions were received in Fiscal Year 2015 under the
Cuban Medical Professional Parole (CMPP) program, an initiative by the
George W. Bush administration that offers visas to Cuban medical
personnel "recruited by the (Cuban) government to study or work in a
third country. Since its start in 2006, more than 8,000 medical
professionals have been admitted under the program.

Solidarity Without Borders, a Hialeah non-profit that helps the arriving
Cuban medical professionals, told el Nuevo Herald that the number of
Cubans applying for the CMPP has risen in recent years. Not everyone is
accepted, and 367 were rejected in fiscal year 2015, according to
official data.

Rodríguez said that when she arrived in Venezuela in 2015, she was
assigned to work with other Cuban medical personnel in the north central
state of Falcon.

"Everything in Venezuela is a lie," she complained. "We were forced to
throw away the reactive for CKMB (a type of blood test), a product that
is scarce in Cuba. But we had to throw it away so that it would be
marked in the books as having been used and Cuba could sell more. The
same happened with the alcohol, bandage, medicines …

"Everything was produced in Cuba and paid for by the Venezuelan
government," Rodríguez said. "We faked lists of patients and were forced
to live on nothing, while Cuba took all the money."

During the time she worked in Venezuela, Cuban officials paid each
medical professional about 3,000 bolivares (about $3) per month — an
amount that has increased substantially recently because of an
inflationary crisis and the relentless devaluation of the Venezuelan

"Sometimes I had to do little jobs on the side to make ends meet," she
said. "Thank God that many Venezuelans take pity on the Cubans and help us.

"Maybe what happened in my case was that when I decided to escape, I
went to the municipality and told them everything about the disaster" at
her clinic, she said. "And now they want to take revenge because I
denounced them."

Another Cuban doctor who works in the northeastern state of Anzoategui
spoke on the condition of not being identified because of fear of being
punished for speaking with a journalist.

"We started earning 3,000 bolivares and we're now up to 15,000," he
said, or about $15 on the black market. "What's interesting is that it
makes no difference if they give us more bolivares because they are
worthless in real life."

"Our working conditions are horrible. We are salaried slaves of Cuba,"
the doctor said. "They keep us in groups. Since I arrived, I live with
three doctors from other parts of the island, so I have to share my room
with someone I don't know, and every day at 6 p.m. I have to 'report'
that I am home."

Officials of the Cuban medical teams in Venezuela justify the daily
check-ins as a security measure due to the high levels of violence in
the neighborhoods where they work. The doctors, however, see it as part
of an effort to keep a close watch on them.

"There are many (Cuban) state security agents. Their job is to keep us
from escaping," said the doctor working in Anzoategui. "When you arrive
in Venezuela, they ask you if you have relatives abroad, especially in
the United States. We all say no, even if we do, because the
surveillance is even worse then."

The economy in Venezuela is so poor, he added, that returning from his
last vacation in Cuba he had to carry back laundry and bathroom soap and

"When we first got here, this was paradise. They had everything we did
not have in Cuba. Today it's exactly the opposite," he said. "We came
thinking we would help our families, and it turns out they are the ones
helping us. If it were not for the money that my brother in Miami sends
me, I don't know what I would do."

Several other medical professionals in Venezuela also said that
authorities try to hide cases when the Cubans become the victims of
crimes, even when they are killed.

"You can't avoid being robbed, because everyone gets robbed here. A
stray bullet, a thug who doesn't like you, we run all those risks," said
another Cuban doctor who also asked for anonymity. "One day I was mugged
by two children, no more than 12 years old. I had to give them all my
money because the pistols they were playing with were real."

The personal relations of the Cuban medical personnel are also watched.

"They warn you that it can go badly for you if you have relations with
Venezuelan government critics," the female doctor said. And although
intimate relations with Venezuelans are formally forbidden, "people find
a way."

During the 13 years that Cuba has been sending medical personnel to
Venezuela, more than 124,000 have served in the South American country.
Thousands have escaped to the United States and other countries,
searching for better lives.

For many years, like Rodríguez, the medical defectors were banned from
returning to Cuba for eight years. Last year, Cuba announced the
defectors could return and would be guaranteed "a job similar to what
they had before."

But there was a catch: Those who returned would need a special permit to
travel abroad again.

Source: Increasing number of Cuban doctors working in Venezuela are
fleeing | In Cuba Today -

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