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BOGOTA, Colombia – In a working-class section of the Colombian capital, a Cuban doctor, nurses and others spend their days languishing in a cramped apartment, checking their phones for word from the U.S. Embassy.
They’re hoping to hear they’ve been approved for U.S. visas under a program that was designed to undermine the Castro regime.
“It’s very hard,” said Dr. Yosmany Velasquez Silva, who has been waiting for a visa for more than four months after leaving his job in rural Venezuela.
The United States enacted the program in 2006 because Cubans sent on these medical missions are considered “conscripted” labor. But now that Cuba and the United States are normalizing relations after 50 years of Cold War tensions, the Cuban health care workers in Bogota worry the visas are drying up.
‘A migratory limbo’
Velasquez and the others were working in Venezuela when they decided to leave their jobs and cross the border into neighboring Colombia. In all, more than 700 Cuban medical professionals left their jobs in Venezuela and have been living in Bogota.
“I’m in limbo here. A migratory limbo,” said nurse Adriana Lopez Lara, who received an email denying her U.S. visa application with no explanation.
Lopez and the others are in Colombia illegally. Without a visa, she can’t come to the United States, and she and the others fear reprisals if they return to Cuba.
“We’ll be spied on, accused as counter-revolutionaries and we won’t be able to earn a living,” Velasquez said.
More than 51,000 Cuban medical personnel now work in at least 67 countries, treating millions of patients, some of them the poorest in the world.
“They go to the farthest corners of all the countries,” said Julie Feinsilver, author of “Healing the Masses,” detailing Cuba’s medical diplomacy. “They live in the slums as well as the peripheries of cities, so they live where the patients are.”
But the Cuban government gets much more than goodwill from its medical diplomacy. The island nation gets desperately needed hard currency and oil.
An estimated 10,000 health care providers are in Venezuela, more than any other country. In return, Venezuela sends Cuba 100,000 barrels of oil a day. Other countries pay cash, about $8 billion a year, outstripping even tourism as a moneymaker for Cuba. The doctors and health care workers see very little of that money.
“It’s inhumane,” she said. “From the outset, the program is misguided. It hasn’t damaged Cuba. I think they thought they’d have this mass exodus. The only thing it’s done is turn more people against U.S. policy.”
But Dr. Cesar Alfonso, a political refugee from Cuba, said the parole program is needed to help medical professionals “escape a mission in which they are modern slaves.”
Alfonso founded an organization in Miami called Solidaridad sin Fronteras(Solidarity Without Borders) that offers assistance to Cuban medical professionals entering the United States through the parole program.
Mice and cockroaches
The Cubans in Bogota told America Tonight they often worked and lived in deplorable and dangerous conditions.
“They took me to a house where I was expected to sleep on the ground,” said pharmacist Katiuska Muniz Alvarez, who left Venezuela for Colombia after only 17 days. “There was no bed. It was a pad lying on the ground – with mice, cockroaches.”
Once they arrived in Bogota, things have not gone according to plan for the Cubans. The speedy visas they’d been expecting from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota were not forthcoming.
“You cross the border with the idea that it will all happen very quickly,” Lopez said.
Discel Rodriguez Vega said he suspected Cuba was putting pressure on the U.S. government to end or slow down the visa program.
“Since the program began in 2006 up to last year, it was 99 percent successful,” said Rodriguez, who signed up for the medical mission in Venezuela with the intention of defecting.
They took me to a house where I was expected to sleep on the ground. here was no bed. It was a pad lying on the ground – with mice, cockroaches.
Katiuska Muniz Alvarez
“It is not at all related with respect to our new policy with respect to Cuba,” U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said last month. “There’s no tie. No connection.”
Cuban-American members of Congress have written open letters to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, the agency that administers the program, asking for visas to be issued and using language more evocative of Cold War foes than new diplomatic partners.
“It is well-known that the Cuban communist regime sends forced labor medical personnel, against their will, to countries for its own political propaganda and if they don’t go, their families will face retaliation on the island,” wrote Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and four others members of Congress.
‘I cried, I laughed’
In the two weeks following the protest in Bogota, the U.S. government issued visas to 150 Cubans in Bogota, Rodriguez among them, according to health care workers here.
“I cried, I laughed, I thanked God. I knelt, everything,” Rodriguez said, laughing. Days later, he was in Miami.
For those still waiting for word from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, and those who have been denied, the strain was taking a toll.
On a recent afternoon, an email to Lopez from the office of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) telling her that officials would again examine her case sent the nurse into a flood of nervous tears.
“They leave us helpless,” said Muniz, the pharmacist.
Already denied a visa, Muniz said was considering traveling by herself through Central America and Mexico, a trip that would be expensive and dangerous since she would have to find a “coyote,” or smuggler, to get her across the boarder.
“They could rape you. They could kill you,” she said. “We showed up here with the hope that everything is going to be alright, with confidence in this program. And, in the end, it is all like in a day, in a moment, in a second, everything goes away.”
With no way back home and without a U.S. visa, Muniz and the other stuck in Bogota have no good way forward, either.