Cuban doctors continue to defect from Venezuela

At Delmas 33, a camp for displaced Haitians in Port-au-Prince, a woman grimaces as a Cuban doctor administers a vaccination provided by the World Health Organization (WHO).At Delmas 33, a camp for displaced Haitians in Port-au-Prince, a woman grimaces as a Cuban doctor administers a vaccination provided by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Cuban doctors flee from Venezuela to Colombia in hope of obtaining U.S. visas; Protest staged in Bogotá to accelerate processing of visas; No plans by State Department to abolish program

As Venezuela’s economy continues to decline sharply, one group of foreigners has decided to pack up and leave. More than 700 Cuban medical professionals have fled across the border to Colombia this year in the hope of obtaining visas for the United States.

Mistreatment and low pay combined with rampant inflation, widespread shortages and social unrest in Venezuela have persuaded many Cubans sent on medical missions to the country to defect.

Under a U.S. sponsored scheme, Cuban medical professionals conscripted to study or to work in a third country may request a visa for the United States. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPP) was introduced in 2006 as the George W. Bush administration toughened its stance towards the Castro administration.

Today, hundreds are looking to take advantage of the scheme. But although on paper the criteria to qualify for parole seem relatively straightforward for Cuban health professionals, U.S. authorities in Colombia have been slow to process visa requests.

Frustrated, more than 100 Cubans doctors in a state of limbo staged a protest in Bogotá last week. Brandishing their medical diplomas, they gathered in a working-class district of the capital to bring attention to their cause.

The protest seems to have had some effect as several days later, U.S. authorities granted provisional visas to more than 20 Cubans.

But the vast majority have been less fortunate. Out of a total of 720 Cuban medicals thought to have crossed the border from Venezuela, an estimated 603 have been deported after exceeding the 90-day safe-conduct granted by the Colombian authorities.

Cuban medical diplomacy

Lauded for its health care system and for a doctor-to-patient ratio unparalleled anywhere in the world, medical diplomacy has long been a cornerstone of Cuba’s foreign policy.

Every year, the Castro administration sends thousands of health professionals on foreign missions. Although the exact number of Cubans abroad is unclear, it is thought that up to 10,000 nationals are currently serving on foreign missions, principally in Venezuela.

Cuban doctors have taken part in a number of relief efforts, including in the wake of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 and during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.

Source: Sophia Paris, UN photos

Cuban doctors administer vaccinations at camp for displaced Haitians. Source: UN photos/Sophia Paris, via Flickr

The export of health care professionals forms part of an ideological commitment to strengthen South-South cooperation, but it also has an important economic dimension to it. Oil-for-doctors trade agreements with Venezuela ensure that Cuba’s energy sources do not dry up.

Cubans doctors sent abroad do not always embrace their government’s zealous medical internationalism enthusiastically, however. Monthly wages for Cuban doctors on a foreign mission, at an estimated $100, represent just a fraction of what the Venezuelan government hands over to Cuba in return for its medical services.

Added to this, Cuban doctors complain about harsh working conditions and the poor state of the Venezuelan economy where food shortages and inflation have become a feature of every day life.

Unsurprisingly then, a staggering 1,278 Cuban medical professionals were lured by the United States’ offer to relocate in 2014.  These included doctors posted to Venezuela, and to other countries including Brazil and Bolivia.

End of program within sight?

The U.S.-sponsored scheme has its critics at home and abroad. In a damning article published late last year, The New York Times criticised the programme for “exacerbating the brain drain” in Cuba.

At a time of seismic change in U.S.-Cuban relations, including the opening of embassies in La Havana and Washington, the removal of Cuba from the Department of State’s state-sponsored terrorism list and a partial lifting of the travel ban, the cancellation of the program may seem like a likely next step.

But a spokesman from the U.S. State Department firmly rejected the possibility of abolishing the scheme. ‘It is not at all related to our new policy with respect to Cuba,’ explained John Kirby. ‘There’s no tie, no connection.’

In the meantime, with hundreds of Cuban doctors continuing to defect from Venezuela, it is obvious who the biggest losers are. Not only do ordinary Venezuelans suffer long daily supermarket queues, inflation and social unrest, but they also face a dangerous health care crisis with shortages of essential medicine and equipment.  The exodus of Cuban doctors is doing nothing to help the situation.