Cuban Doctors in Bogota Demand US Visas After Defecting In Venezuela

Decenas de médicos cubanos manifestándose este sábado en la Plaza de Banderas, al sur de Bogotá. (EFE/ Leonardo Muñoz)
Dozens of Cuban doctors demonstrating this Saturday for a US visa in the Plaza de Banderas, south of Bogota. (EFE / Leonardo Muñoz)

Around fifty Cubans who deserted from Cuban “medical missions”* in Venezuela gathered this Saturday in Bogota to denounce the “legal limbo” of nearly 500 of them who continue to wait for a visa to the United States and have exhausted the time of their stay in Colombia.

“We are gathered here today to demonstrate to the world that we are professionals and we are seeking freedom to practice our profession,” the dentist Mara Martinez, one of the Cubans in Bogota, explained to EFE.

Martinez, like many of her compatriots, finds herself in Bogota after deserting the medical mission in Venezuela and crossing the border to Columbia “informally.”

On arriving in Bogota she asked to access Parole, a special US visa program, and while her request was pending she obtained safe conduct that allowed her to remain in the country legally for 90 days. After that time transpired she found herself in an irregular situation defined as “legal limbo.”

According to official data from Colombia Migration, in total 720 Cubans have entered the country informally so far this year after deserting in Venezuela.

Currently, according to the data, 117 of them are waiting for the US visa, while 603 have been deported so far in 2015.

However, this data contrasts with that managed by the Cubans themselves; the doctor José Ángel Sanchez told EFE that from January to date they estimate that about 1,600 doctors have entered Colombia.

Of these, about 600 have gotten a visa to the United States, so there are still a thousand in Bogota.

“At the time we abandoned [the missions] we cease to be professionals in service to Cuba,” said Sanchez, explaining that their titles had already been cancelled in their native country.

The reasons why they decided to try to travel to the United States range from lack of freedom to the poor conditions in which they lived in Venezuela.

According to Colombia Migration, 720 Cubans have entered the country informally so far this year after deserting in Venezuela.

“We are modern slaves, I made the decision to abandon the mission to seek a better economic solution,” said the doctor Inalbis Lao Miniel.

Lao Miniel explained that the wage paid in Venezuela “barely covers the basic needs of anyone” and they had to live in substandard housing, which made them become infected with dengue fever.

With their salary, they could not afford to purchase essential hygiene items and had to resort to relatives in Cuba to meet some of their basic needs.

To enter Colombia, they had to illegally cross the border at city of Cucuta, currently closed following an attack by suspected smugglers against Venezuelan military.

On their way they met policemen from both countries who “know why come, they think we have money and to not be betrayed by them, they ask us for an amount of money that sometimes we don’t have to give them,” added Lao Miniel.

Among the reasons why they decided to leave their country as well, is the lack of democracy,” explained the nurse Adriana Lopez to EFE.

“I decided to leave it because I realized that (in Cuba) I would continue to be without freedom, without democracy,” she said.

In this regard says she observed in Venezuela how citizens “expressed what they felt and I wondered why they can express it and we cannot.”

“If you say what you think you can be prosecuted,” she said of the situation in Cuba.

Lopez explained that in Cuba she currently has her two daughters, both pregnant, along with her mother. She says they only ask for support and even ask that she “send a helicopter get them out of there.”

This is a situation that is repeated in numerous cases among Cubans who gathered today under a clear slogan: “When the people emigrate the rulers should step down.”

*Translator’s note: The Cuban government calls the work of Cuban doctors in other countries “missions,” but they are monetary arrangements and one of the major sources of governmental revenue. The doctors serving abroad are paid a small fraction of what foreign governments pay the Cuban government for their services.

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