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How do Cuban doctors escape Venezuela?

Part of the "Barrio Adentro", or Inside the Neighborhood program, two Cuban doctors talk in the Integral Diagnostic Center.

Doctors escape medical missions assigned by the Cuban government. These missions are not only to Venezuela, but to other parts of the world.

Despite the eight years in which they may not return to see family on the island, uncertain fates and the danger to which they are exposed, in 2013, eight Cuban doctors defected daily in Venezuela.

In two days, Cuban doctor Maria del Carmen Fundora would travel to the United States. They woke her at four o'clock in the morning, in the home she shared with her mission companions in Venezuela. She was still in pajamas, because they wouldn't allow her to change clother. Despite the curfew imposed by the violence in that country, in the middle of the night, the attending head of mission and security personnel from Cuba and Venezuela went to take her away.

The evidence against her was irrefutable: emails sent to relatives in the United States and phone calls to the U.S. Embassy. The last that was heard from her was that she was immediately deported to the island. Her belongings would be sent to her later.

Fernando Garcia, a doctor from Santiago de Cuba, ran better luck. He came to the U.S. after crossing the Colombian border, just days after the Fundora incident. He was accompanied by his wife, who is also a Cuban doctor. For over a month, they lived in a cheap motel in Caracas, awaiting visas granted through the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program.

Not to be deported to Venezuela, Garcia followed the recommendation to leave the mission before starting the paperwork to travel to the United States. He tried not to attract the attention of the authorities or take any medication or utensil, including his stethescope. Besides all that, it "is always advisable to take a little money with you in case you have to bribe someone on the road."

He chose to take the risk of crossing the border through the Venezuelan state of Tachira to Cucuta, because once in Colombia "you are free." He had previously heard of doctors who, like him, with visa in hand, were stuck "in an office," of Venezuelan airports "to jave money extracted." Otherwise they were deported to Cuba."

Crossing the border between Venezuela and Colombia "is not that complicated," and although there are police checks, they usually do not stop the medium sized buses that transport passengers between the two countries, separated by only a bridge.

Garcia and his wife lived at the motel, almost completely hidden, and suffered firsthand the consequences of being in a "limbo or no man's land."

She needed injections to relieve the terrible pain of a migraine and could not return to where Cuban or Venezuelan doctors were, because they had no money. It's been a year and six months since both arrived in the United States, but are still not working in their chosen profession.

They have a small daughter born of the heat of those days. Their desire to work as doctors does not leave them, as they study to overcome the rigorous exams required by the state of Florida.

At the gates

The name of this other Cuban doctor it is omitted for obvious reasons. Within days, she will board an American Airlines plane that covers the route between Venezuela and the United States. She studied in Cuba for 15 years before receiving her degree, Summa Cum Laude with a specialty in Stomatology. As a reward, she was sent to Guantanamo’s mountainous areas to fulfill her social service, and then to Venezuela, where three months later, she left the Barrio Adentro Mission.

Ever since she began to electronically fill out the Online Nonimmigrant Visa application form (DS -160) on the website of the Embassy of the United States in Venezuela, she counted with on "the support of her family in that country," which opened the doors of their home. She obtained her U.S. visa approximately two months after presenting proof of citizenship and proof that she was a Cuban doctor, among other documents.

From that moment on, she had to choose between two options to leave the country: one exposed her to frequent extortion at the Simón Bolívar International Airport of Maiquetía; the other was to cross the border with Colombia and fly to the U.S. from there.

"I have friends who have paid airport officials and left with no problem, and others who have chosen to make the journey across the border, which has also gone well. The money I 'm spending to get to Colombia is the same that I’ll pay here at the airport," she said.

Cuban doctors on medical missions have a red passport identifying them as such. But the red passport meant, "nothing for me to legally leave via a Venezuelan airport." She would have to request a regular (blue) passport at the Consulate of Cuba in Valencia, third largest city of Venezuela.

"In Valencia it’s better because there’s less delay in the process and less tension than in the Cuban Embassy in Caracas. “They know everything, that you're a deserter, but you have a right to apply for a passport and in about a month, you get it," she said.

Right now spends the little time she has left before her departure in the company of family and friends she has made here. In her light luggage are an image of La Virgen de la Caridad, the patron saint of Cuba, her mother gave her in her native Pinar del Rio and the $200 that may be asked of her at the airport.

According to the stomatologist, doctors from the island who come to Colombia should ask immigration there for a Letter of Deportation to be able to legally board a flight to the United States.

Those who returned

Doctors who leave Cuba’s official government medical missions, not only in Venezuela, but in any country of the world, “should be very cautious when they approach the U.S. embassy" and should not "talk to just anyone" of their intentions, warns Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of the NGO Solidarity Without Borders.

Even after having a visa, "it is true that many are extorted. It has happened in several cases, mainly at the Simón Bolívar International Airport, and that is the reason why both we and the U.S. authorities recommend not to leave via the airport, but instead by crossing the border into Colombia.”

In addition to the immediate deportation to Cuba of two nurses caught trying to cross the border into Colombia, there are also other cases. Dr. Ulises Bernal, for example, was "was held for a year by Venezuela’s National Guard and subjected to torture and mistreatment in prison.” The last that was heard from them was that they could not return to practice their profession on the island.

The State Department reports on its digital page that travel through the Simón Bolívar International Airport of Maiquetía can be dangerous. The U.S. Embassy in that country has credible records of attempted extortion of travelers by airport officials and the theft of valuables from their luggage.

Three waters

According to Solidarity Without Borders, three thousand Cuban doctors arrived in the United States in 2013. Ninety-eight percent of them came from the Barrio Adentro Mission in Venezuela. Since the beginning of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program in August 2006, that number adds up to eight thousand.

According to the Miami immigration lawyer Willy Allen, in most cases they request residency a year and a day after they step on American soil.

However, the doctors who decide to stay in Venezuela and do not emigrate to the United States are left in a "dead end stree," says Yaima Vázquez, a specialist in General Medicine from Las Tunas. After five years of being married to a Venezuelan, she is now processing her Venezuelan identity card and passport, but that only applies to her case.

"Those who have not had my luck" – finding a Venezuelan partner-- "can only apply for a Cuban passport" and return to the island, she says. But who took the "step of leaving family and country for a better future,” put themselves in a position where returning to the island is almost impossible.

Currently the number of Cuban doctors not regularized in different countries, especially in Venezuela, who have left the mission they were sent on by the Cuban government is unknown.
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    Adriel Reyes

    Adriel Reyes is a journalist, researcher and university professor whose experience spans the radio, television and Internet platforms at The Martis. Specialist in Cuba's social issues. Follow him on Twitter: @ElZunzun