HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 6 — On Thursday, October 14, 2010, Rafael Fontirroche Cruz woke up with a bad premonition. After having lived in Nicaragua for two years, he had never feared the future, but that day he had the sensation something bad was going to happen.
Days earlier he had earned the hatred of the head of the Cuban medical brigade that worked in Muelle de los Bueyes, where he served as a pediatric surgeon.
Rafael had blown the whistle on several acts of corruption, and he knew the consequences could lead to his deportation. But when morality is not subject to censorship, threats meant little to him.
At 7:00 in the morning, Rafael showed up at the small hospital where he offered his services in exchange for 5,079 Cordobas (about $230 USD) a month.
He was making his rounds visiting his patients when he heard some rumors that forced him to double back to the “barracks,” the dormitory of the medical staff.
The place was kind of a hall divided into cubicles by sheets of cardboard, and where privacy was the golden dream of all the doctors who lived there.
There was a small kitchen in which to save gas when cooking for the 30 Cubans, a single meal was made that was designed to deceive their hunger with chicken broth, rice and beans.
The bathrooms had a putrid odor coming from a small hole from which the wastewater emptied into the sewage pipes.
Everyone there was counting the days that remained before their return to Cuba and their leaving so many hardships behind. Each had the hope that with the money they saved they could help their families’ lives more bearable on the Caribbean island.
None of them disputed the humanitarian role they were playing in Nicaragua, where the shortage of specialists multiplied the death toll at the hands of shamans and midwives, but no one had imagined the dramatic conditions of overcrowding they would have to face.
Deciding to leave
Rafael returned to the dormitory with the comment he had heard in the corridors of the hospital resounding in his ears: “Hey man, Rafael’s going to be sent back to Cuba for getting into it with the chief.”
Rafael knew what awaited him if he returned to the island branded a counter-revolutionary: public ridicule, his children shamed, psychological abuse of his wife, evil stares, telephone calls…
He remembered the cases of other doctors who had lost positions as professors and received verbal threats for raising criticisms of Fidel Castro’s government, now that of his brother Raul.
Compelled by an uncontrollable impulse to break the chains of intransigence, without thinking twice, Rafael put his few belongings in a backpack and he left to never return.
He finally found refuge in the house of some trusted friends, knowing that Cuban State Security, the highest body of government repression in Cuba, would comb the heavens and earth to find him.
My first contacts with Rafael began when he had already deserted from the medical brigade. We communicated through the Facebook social network, and through that we began a good friendship.
From the beginning I could note certain reservations when we touched on the issue of the brigade; it was as if he wanted to keep his experience with it private. But my curiosity ended up knocking down all his barriers.
I finally found out about his desertion — something he had hidden in all our conversations — and I could begin to tie together some loose ends, ones which only really made complete sense on January 18, 2010, when for the first time he decided to break the silence.
Three hours with Rafael
The interview took place in a cafe in the Galerias Santo Domingo mall in Managua. Rafael showed up 35 minutes late, when my hope that I would get his story had already begun to vanish.
He looked around quickly and recognized me almost at once. Walking with resolve, he came up to my table, but when he got in front of me he collapsed into one of the seats beside me. It was as if in that millisecond of time, the strength that had accompanied him suddenly left.
I tried to calm him by telling him that no one knew we were there, and gradually his calm began to return. Like this, among so many people who were unaware of the drama this man was going through, the interview began.
How did you get to Nicaragua?
“I arrived through a selection process that was based on people’s professional capacities, their support for the Revolution and one’s desire to offer their abilities to a society that needed them. It was also a means of escape.”
What do you mean by a “means of escape”?
Rafael’s look got lost in a nebula, as if he was having doubts. Finally I heard a thread of a voice that opened up space between so many fears:
“The brigades of Cuban doctors that travel abroad have become the sole form of escaping a totalitarian government where we don’t have the right to differ or express our disagreements regarding the way the country’s economy and politics are controlled.”
Immigration laws that are in effect in Cuba prohibit Cubans from leaving legally. The sole ways to travel to other countries are through a letter of invitation from the place you want to go, voluntary expatriation accompanied by the loss of all your belongings, marriage to a foreigner; or internationalists solidarity brigades, like the one that Rafael had belonged to.
Is that the only reason you left Cuba?
“No, I also saw in the brigade as the only way to improve my economic situation. In Cuba the wages are very low. For example, me as a medical specialist who enjoys a high salary, I only earn 633 pesos a month, or the equivalent of $25.32 dollars, which doesn’t even allow me to buy the food my family needs.”
In Cuba there exist ration books through which people are provided certain basic products at reduced prices to alleviate their food needs.
Sabotage by the Yatama Party
How did people in Nicaragua receive you?
“Sincerely, very well. I felt very welcomed. People knew we were there to augment medical services and to offer treatment in specialties like surgery, orthopedics, internal medicine and pediatrics. The obstacle was the opponents of the FSLN [the party in power], because they tried to sabotage our work.”
Who were those opponents and what did they do?
“The indigenous Yatama party. For them we represented an obstacle to their political interests. They made false accusations against us and criticized our work by organizing campaigns against us in the media, especially on radio programs.”
Why did you represent an obstacle?
“Because they know that we’re part of a political initiative that uses us as hook to win votes in the community. I’m not saying that the brigades don’t have a humanitarian aspect, but unquestionably the doctors are instruments of the Sandinista and the Cuban governments, because no one and nothing is apolitical.”
Why did you desert?
“I always saw the brigade as an opportunity to leave a system that doesn’t have a future. Cuban ‘communism’ has led us to an economy of misery and a life of hardship with galloping prostitution approved by the authorities. All of this is to promote exclusivity and the quality of the only profitable economic activity on the island: tourism. In addition, I saw many acts of corruption and reported them, which led to my having lots of enemies.”
What acts of corruption?
“The director of the brigade issued purchase orders for soap, toilet paper and other basic products to meet the doctors’ needs. But instead of distributing them, he kept them for himself and other Nicaraguan leaders. This allowed him to run a profitable little business at the expense of our needs, and all this was paid for by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (MINSA).”
Did you ever report it?
“Yes, because we had to use our savings to pay for something that by right was ours. The idea of every Cuban when they leave their country is to work hard to save as much money as they can and send it to their family. But this was a brazen robbery. And since I called it like it was, they decided to kick me out of the brigade and send me back to Cuba. That was when I decided to escape and try to work out my immigration status so that I could leave Nicaragua. I can’t say anything else.”
Rafael’s concept of the Cuban project
“Cuba is a prison in the sea where there doesn’t exist the chance to speak or to criticize the errors of the system in the interest of improving our run-down economy. The Cuban Revolution is a social project that is good in its essence but it has been distorted by those who are in power.”
How have they distorted it?
“The essence of the Cuban Revolution was the eradication of a system of classes where private individuals or companies were the owners of the means of production. The Revolution had as its objective to achieve equal access to education and health care. But what we have today is far from what was dreamed of by people like Jose Marti or Che Guevara. Our media doesn’t function because it’s controlled by the government. We don’t have access to the Internet or to international news, while the government’s achievements have deteriorated.”
“Because over these past 51 years we’ve experienced a loss of values and a profound deterioration of our health care and educational systems. Cuba is bleeding. Our youths are immigrating to other countries in ships, on inner-tube rafts and even in the landing gear of airplanes. They look for contracts to work abroad, they marry foreigners or they use internationalist brigades, concerts and sports championships to look for new opportunities in other countries. And as time passes, Cuban society is aging; life expectancy is extending but we’re losing the strongest and most productive part of the work force.”
(*) A Havana Times translation published with the authorization of El Nuevo Diario daily newspaper.