Cuban Doctors Seek Path to U.S.

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More than 20,000 Cuban doctors and medical personnel provide their services in Venezuela. But many of the doctors are defecting to neighboring Colombia in hopes of finding asylum in the United States.


Immigrants take many routes to America, but sometimes the path is blocked. Consider some Cubans, who try a roundabout route we'll describe this morning. More than 20,000 Cuban doctors and other medical personnel work in Venezuela. It's part of a deal between Fidel Castro and Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez.

Many of those professionals are inspired to flee next door to neighboring Colombia because of a U.S. policy that encourages Cuban defections. Once in Colombia, they sometimes are stuck waiting for asylum in the United States.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Bogota.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

JUAN FORERO: The El Carmen neighborhood in Bogota's poor south side with its quiet streets and mangy dogs seems forlorn. It is here that several Cuban doctors, dentists and other medical personnel have made a home since fleeing from Venezuela. Among them is 36-year-old Ariel Perez(ph), who defected last year. He recalls crossing in to Colombia.

Mr. ARIEL PEREZ (Cuban Medical Personnel): When we went to cross the bridge, we said, the last chance to come back. We evaded the immigration officers. We take another route.

FORERO: Hundreds of Cuban medical personnel assigned to Venezuela had defected in recent years. That's a small minority among the huge army of doctors assigned to that country by Fidel Castro in exchange for Venezuelan oil. Last year, the United States - a perennial adversary of the governments in Havana and Caracas - enacted a new policy to encourage Cuban doctors and other medical personnel serving around the world to defect.

In Colombia, dozens now wait for the American government to rule on their applications. Among them is Giovanni Cierro(ph). He's a sports trainer. That's a category included in the new American policy, but he was turned down with no reason given.

Mr. GIOVANNI CIERRO (Sports Trainer): (Through translator) The conditions we live in here are precarious, because we don't have permission to work. We don't have economic help. With no help, you're alone.

FORERO: In Venezuela, the Cubans worked in poor neighborhoods. They provided prenatal care, medical exams and medicine. They made house calls - all for free. Ariel Perez says the care he and others provided was important.

Mr. PEREZ: I was very proud about my work in Venezuela because I served the people - the poor people in Venezuela. They appreciate so much my working in that country.

FORERO: Still, from the time he and other Cubans got to Venezuela, they dreamed of escaping. With two friends, Perez simply took a bus to the Colombian border. The Cubans now live in a Spartan, two-bedroom apartment. Living on donations, their diet is heavy on what's cheap, like eggs. It's only on occasion that they make Cuba's signature dish: shredded beef with rice and beans.

What's good here in El Carmen is that the presence of the doctors has been welcomed by the locals.

(Soundbite of cafe atmosphere)

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: And a cafe next to the apartment, Diana Torres(ph) knows she can seek help from the Cubans if she's feeling sick.

Ms. DIANA TORRES (Resident, El Carmen): (Through translator) If you feel sick, we have confidence to go talk to them. They're very kind, very dedicated in what they do.

FORERO: Perez is happy to help, but he longs to get to the United States.

Mr. PEREZ: I want to be alive. I want to live my life. I want to be free. I want to make what I wanted, because I have some dream in my life.

FORERO: It remains to be seen if it's a dream that will be fulfilled.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.

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