By José Alberto Gutiérrez (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES – When the bus finally reached Bogota, Iraida felt that she had finally shaken off the terrible heavy weight that she had been dragging for more than a thousand never ending kilometers.
The 25-year-old Cuban dentist had traversed this distance alone, navigating the reefs set up by the Cuban-Bolivarian system to prevent defection and the difficulties of an illegal entry into Colombia.
The risky journey – involving four of Venezuela’s western states, a clandestine border crossing and transit through five unknown Colombian departments – culminated in Bogota. Iraida never suspected that upon reaching this territory she was just beginning the longest and most agonizing wait since she had abandoned her assigned medical post at a Barrio Adentro neighborhood clinic health.
A hundred thirty days later, Iraida is still waiting for an e-mail with the US State Department’s with permission to enter the United States, her long-planned dream from the day she chose to sign up for the medical mission in Venezuela.
While she and other hundreds of Cuban health professionals, most of them deserters from the Venezuela mission, wait for the visa from the Cuban Medical Professionals’ Program (CMPP), they live a tormented existence trying to survive in the Bogota cold. There are no official statistics on the number of these Cuban professionals in Colombia, but estimates run as high as 1,500.
“Here in the barrio, I personally know more than 30 doctors, but I know that there are more than a hundred of us waiting for visas. Specialists, dentists, anesthesiologists, nurses, laboratory technicians, occupational therapists, couples and single people, parents with two or three children in Cuba – there’s a little of everything”, Iraida states.
Kennedy City’s Inner Barrio
Iraida and Yamilet, a Cuban doctor in a similar situation, share one room in an apartment located in the populous Kennedy district in the city’s southern sector. “The rents in this neighborhood are cheaper than in the northern sector,” she explains.
Each one pays the equivalent of US $100 for the room with one bed and use of the kitchen and other areas of a building where the owners, a retired couple, live. They buy the essential items to cook at home and keep expenses as low as possible.
“This country is very expensive for us. A week’s worth of basic provisions – rice, beans, salad and a protein, with no snacks – cost us 70,000 Colombian pesos, about US $30,” the dentist says. Her chronic asthma strains her budget even more, forcing her to constantly buy aerosol sprays.
Colombia has provided them with a provisional residency permit, but won’t issue them identity cards or work permits, so that they must engage in informal activities such as manicures, hair cutting, waiting tables, cleaning houses or dishwashing in restaurants, while some of the men find employment washing cars.
This type of labor doesn’t net more than 15,000 Colombian pesos a day, the equivalent of US $6.28. Money they receive from family members in the United States and even from Cuba serves as a life raft for many of them.
The young dentist never served a day in Venezuela. Five nights in the assigned residence was all that her Bolivarian mission lasted. From the first moment she arrived, she felt mistreated by the program heads.
“They were watching my every step: if I used the computer, if I was chatting, if I was speaking on the telephone, they were observing me constantly, my belongings and everything,” she states. She wasn’t able to leave the compound which she shared with an “under threat” as they call those who have received death threats from a Venezuelan and are waiting to be relocated to a place far removed from the conflict.
On her second day, an unknown individual arrived at the house and demanded her passport. Iraida wouldn’t agree to hand it over, arguing that if there were any kind of instability in the country she would be left without her documents. The unknown person told her to use her identity card, but she roundly refused. From then on, naturally, she fell under increased vigilance. She wasn’t offered any breakfast, either, only two meals a day.
“When I protested, they told me that I should be strong and put up with it, because no one had forced me to go on the mission. I asked them to let me go out and eat something and they told me that the new arrivals didn’t get to go out, because they were possible deserters,” she related.
To top things off, in Ospino, the town where they placed her, the dental chairs had been deactivated and it would take another month to reinstall them in the new locale, as the mission had been evicted from the previous site for failure to pay.
The day that she managed to leave the residence, she threw her essential items into a bag for the trip and one of the boxes of condoms that she had brought from Cuba. One of the methods used by Cuban international mission personnel to finance themselves is the sale of products in high demand in Venezuela that can be obtained in Cuba. If they are stopped, they can say that they were going to sell them because they had no money. No one would find a visit to a buyer of Cuban condoms strange.
Her resources were reduced to savings brought from Cuba for the escape. During the five-day journey to Bogota she had to sleep in hotels, take taxis, motorbike taxis, buses and pay bribes. Once in Colombia, en route from the border city of Cúcuta to the capital, the police stopped the bus. In order to allow her to continue her route, and under menace of deportation, they forced her to pay 500 of the 600 dollars she was carrying.
“After that fright, I spent 14 hours of travel without sleeping and without getting off at the stops to eat, only drinking water so as not to get dehydrated. At every stop I would lock myself in the bathroom from fear,” Iraida recalls.
Murmurings of the rumor mill
While they are feeling the pressure of maintaining themselves in the Colombian capital, the deserters are also concerned about the current delay in receiving visas from the United States’ CMPP program. According to the doctors, visas that previously took between 30 and 60 days to arrive now take a minimum of 120. The latest beneficiaries of the CMPP program had requested their visas over 130 days previously, and rumors are growing that the special program for deserters is going to close, something they were told by the Colombian immigration agents themselves.
In response to the complaints of delay, the US embassy in Bogota has given notice that the process takes over 90 days and confirms that “we are currently experimenting a backlog” in the processing of requests. The fact is, a step that had been an expedited transaction since the program was established in 2006 has now become a sticky process. Of late only a trickle of candidates have received visas, and days pass without anyone hearing good news.
“Now they are denying more visas than they approve, even for professionals with 20 years of proven service. It’s an exhausting situation; no one gives us an answer. At this stage, my greatest fear is that they won’t give me a visa. I wouldn’t know what to do next,” Iraida confesses.
One well known case is that of another doctor who escaped from “Barrio Adentro” while pregnant from a Venezuelan. The child was born in Colombia, but that country only recognizes children born of foreigners as naturalized citizens when the parents have legal residence. This is not the case with Cubans who crossed the border. The US denied the doctor’s visa and when that happens, Colombia gives a deadline for leaving the country, but the baby has no nationality nor any travel documents.
Yet another case is that of the dentists Raquel Lobato, Martha Martin and Oddy Ginarte, whose visas were received from the CMPP program but then cancelled when they tried to travel to the United States from Colombia recently. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen intervened in the matter and requested that the United States Embassy in Colombia inform her why these visas were so unexpectedly cancelled.
The three dentists now have their visas again and will leave for Miami in the next few days.
But uncertainty still reigns amid stories that the White House is revising the CMPP program as part of President Barack Obama’s new policies towards Cuba. During the bilateral negotiations begun last January, the Cuban representation stated that the program is an obstacle in the way of the normalization of relations between the two countries. The possibility exists that the new era between Washington and Havana could bring about the elimination of this program.
The Solidarity without Borders organization, based in Miami, has launched an alert before the US authorities and the international community regarding “the grave situation that the Cuban health professionals are experiencing. Having requested visas from the CMPP, they now find themselves in a migratory limbo in third countries.” The group affirms that they fear for the physical and moral well-being of the professionals who are waiting to travel to the United States.
But the US authorities have not offered any concrete response to the questions of this group of health professionals stuck in Colombia, and everything appears to indicate that the days of the CMPP – an initiative that has benefitted more than nine thousand doctors and their families – are numbered.
Note: “Iraida” and “Yamilet” are fictitious names since the doctors declined to reveal their real identities for fear of reprisals.