Cubans on Medical Aid Mission Flee Venezuela, but Find Limbo

Cubans Jorge Mulet, 29, a physical therapist, Nora Garcia, 46, an orthodontist, and Ariel Perez, 36, a physician, quit their medical posts and now share a small, two-bedroom apartment in Colombia's capital.
Cubans Jorge Mulet, 29, a physical therapist, Nora Garcia, 46, an orthodontist, and Ariel Perez, 36, a physician, quit their medical posts and now share a small, two-bedroom apartment in Colombia's capital. (Alejandra Devengoechea - Photo By Alejandra Devengoechea)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Ariel Perez was, like thousands of fellow Cuban doctors, a devoted soldier in Fidel Castro's most important overseas mission -- providing medical care to the poor in oil-rich Venezuela, Cuba's most vital ally. But last year, Perez and two Cuban companions, carrying rucksacks with a few belongings and holding just $1,300 among them, sneaked across the Colombian border and promptly defected.

"From the moment I got there, I thought of it -- leaving," Perez, 36, said in an interview in Bogota, where about 40 Cuban physicians and other medical professionals are living after fleeing from Venezuela.

Now, Perez and the other Cuban defectors are providing a rare inside look at a program that has helped define the close relationship between Washington's two most formidable adversaries in the Americas, the 48-year-old communist government in Cuba and the populist administration of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Cuba has dispatched more than 20,000 doctors, as well as thousands of other specialists such as sports trainers and therapists, to Venezuela. Chávez's government has paid for the service by providing Cuba with nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day, filling the void left by the Soviet Union, Havana's longtime benefactor during the Cold War.

Bringing medical personnel to once-forgotten shantytowns of Venezuela has been among the more popular of Chávez's many social programs, and has helped consolidate Venezuela's self-styled revolutionary government. Working from small brick modules, the Cubans examine newborns, provide care for the elderly and make house calls -- all for free.

"Anyone who gets sick here can go at midnight to where the Cuban doctors are, and they attend to you right away," Isalenis Arevalo, 24, who lives in a poor neighborhood, said in a recent interview at her home in Caracas. Before the Cubans arrived, she said, medical services were practically nonexistent for residents in her district.

"You had to buy the medicines," said Arevalo, whose 7-month-old baby, Adriana, receives regular checkups. "You had to go to the clinics and pay high prices. The doctors didn't want to come to the barrios."

Chávez and other government officials have declared the program, called Inside the Barrio, a success. But a Venezuelan medical association critical of the Chávez government has expressed reservations about the Cuban doctors' qualifications, and political opposition leaders have criticized the program for its lack of transparency. Cuban doctors are not permitted to talk to foreign journalists or diplomats. They must seek permission to travel outside of their assigned municipalities, and doctors who have defected say Cuban and Venezuelan intelligence operatives kept close tabs on their whereabouts.

The doctors in Bogota spoke of the pride they felt delivering care to the poor in the name of their small country, which has made health care a priority since Castro took power in 1959. But they also talked of being terrified working in Venezuelan neighborhoods buffeted by crime.

Most jumped at the chance to work overseas, seeing it as an opportunity to earn far more than the $15 a month they were paid in Cuba. But the workload was heavy -- from early morning until night, sometimes seven days a week. And the pay -- around $200 a month -- quickly evaporated in a country with high prices and double-digit inflation.

Although it is unclear how many have defected, Western diplomats in Bogota said that in 2006 there were 63 Cubans, most of them presumed to be medical professionals, who sought asylum in this country. That group does not include those who headed straight to the U.S. Embassy seeking help. U.S. authorities here referred questions about the Cubans to Homeland Security officials in Washington, who did not return telephone calls.

But Ana Carbonell, chief of staff for Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Cuban American and a staunch opponent of Castro and Chávez, said that "it's safe to say it's hundreds" of Cubans assigned to Venezuela who have sought asylum in recent years.

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