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'We had to fudge the numbers, I did. I even put the names of acquaintances of mine in Cuba': Doctors on 'missions' during the pandemic

'They tell you that you can't lie, but they force you to,' says a professional who worked in Venezuela.

Cuban doctors return to Cuba after completing a mission in Venezuela.
Cuban doctors return to Cuba after completing a mission in Venezuela. Trabajadores

While some international figures and organizations are asking that the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize be awarded to the Henry Reeve International Contingent, the reality of the Cuban government's missions continues to come to light.

Many admire the deployment of Cuban doctors in 40 countries and territories during almost a year of the pandemic, but fail to reflect on the conditions under which these professionals worked, and continue to.

"When the pandemic started, they told us that we had to do consults every day. They gave us a mask, and we had to remind them for them to give us another one ten days later. You had to go to areas that are dangerous; I often had to go alone," said a doctor who recently left the mission in Venezuela, and asked to remain anonymous, fearing that his family in Cuba would suffer reprisals for his statements.

"They told us that we should see 150 people in one day, but that was impossible, and you had to walk a lot. 'We had to fudge the numbers, I did. I would see a couple of households, and then make up names and ID cards. I even put the names of acquaintances of mine in Cuba. They (the heads of the mission) don't realize it, or review it, because the numbers are the important thing," added the doctor, who gave the organization Cuban Prisoners Defenders express authorization  for DIARIO DE CUBA to contact him.

Lying, altering statistics and having to throw out medications was routine for this professional , not only during the pandemic, but throughout his years in Venezuela. "You had to operate on 15 or 16 patients a day, but no one went. We operated, if anything, on four or five. There were patients who came to ask something, and we would put them down as operations. For the figures to add up, you had to throw away the drugs that you had supposedly used on that patient. For example, the lenses that are used for cataract patients," said the doctor. "They (the mission heads) tell you that you can't lie, but they force you to."

"And you wouldn't want to see what conditions we operated under. The ceiling...was falling, it was like being in a war. Often we had to go to private clinics to exchange, for example, gloves for detergent and alcohol, in order to sterilize the room. Sometimes we had a lot of antibiotics that had to be thrown away to inflate the figures, so other times we didn't have any for the patient after the operation. We had to send him home without antibiotics, or we had to use an expired one. For the sutures, sometimes we also had to go to private clinics, and even exchange things from our own supplies (mercal), because the bosses did not see to it that we had them".

By mercal the doctor refers to supplies that Cuban professionals received for their subsistence. "For example, flour, which we don't eat, we traded with the Venezuelans for potatoes. To get to work, I also had to exchange flour for someone to take me by car or truck. When I used to finish work, at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, I had to do the same thing. What those people (Venezuelans) had with Cubans was a real business," he said.

"Saudi Arabia would not lend itself to that"

Dr. Alex Pardo Castro, 37, is a specialist in Internal Medicine. He worked in Saudi Arabia from September 2019 to mid-2020, and says that it is "a totally different country." However, he also suffered abuse.

He explained that while he was there, he did not alter or see altered statistics, or throw out medications: "Saudi Arabia would not lend itself to that," he said.

During the pandemic, he did not go out to do inquiries, although he worked a lot attending patients directly. There the doctors did have all the necessary protection. Despite this, several Cubans fell ill, though fortunately, without fatal consequences. "It would be very sad to work as slaves and end up like this," added Pardo Castro.

This doctor began to feel like a slave when comparing the conditions under which he worked, and the salary he received, with those of his local colleagues, who looked down on him.

"We had to comply with a regulation —Resolution 168 of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment—that I learned about on the mission. Nobody told me about it in Cuba," he said.

"That regulation says that you can’t be friends with anyone who does not share your ideology. If my brother told me that he intended to leave the mission, I was supposed to report it."

"To top it all off, you have to give them 75% to 90% of your salary, and work 64 hours a week. We worked for 48 hours, plus 16 on call. With the money you had left, you had to pay for rent, water, electricity, transportation and food. Everything."

In Cuba Pardo Castro had signed a contract with the Arab side, according to which all the money - about $4,000 - was for him. Then he learned that the Cuban side wanted to receive the money from the Arab one and deposit a percentage in the collaborator's account. "Cuba proposed that to Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia said no, that they were going to pay the Cuban doctor what they promised. So the Cuban side created what is known as the 'conciliation system,' a euphemism for a scheme by which the professional, after receiving the money directly from the government of the country for which he works, must deliver to the Cuban regime whatever it demands of him.

According to Pardo Castro, the account through which he paid the Cuban government had to be in the name of a relative, so as not to arouse suspicion among the Saudis. "For example, I sent money for the Government of Cuba to an account in my mother's name. The Arabs thought I was sending the money to my family, but I wasn't. One sent the money to the Government of Cuba."
The "remittance" wad to be accompanied by a table on which the professional presented his expenses. If he failed to comply, and did not send all the money he owed Cuba, he was considered a "debtor." "You can go to prison, because that carries a sanction," said Pardo Castro.

"My family had to send me money from Cuba"

The situation for his colleague in Venezuela was even worse. His accommodations were full of cockroaches at night, and with the money they paid him he barely had enough for a pound of beef.

A complaint by Cuban Prisoners Defenders against the Cuban Government before the International Criminal Court states that Cuban doctors receive a stipend for their expenses in the country where they carry out missions, and the rest (10-25% of what the Government of the destination country pays ) is deposited in a bank in Cuba. If the collaborator abandons the mission, or does not return to Cuba when it is over, he loses that money.

"They were paying me the equivalent of almost $10 a month, when a pound of beef costs about that much. In Cuba, they put the rest of the money on a card (…), about 250 CUC a month. There was another card on which they put money for my family to withdraw it, but that money was taken from me, from the 250 CUC. My family had to send me money from Cuba just for me to survive. They could withdraw about 50CUC a month using that card," explained the doctor who completed a mission in Venezuela.

"The money that I was accumulating in Cuba, I was supposed to collect when I went on vacation, but it was never all there. They never paid you for the 11 months, they always owed you for four or five, and they paid me when for them I went on vacation again," he added.

"And, as for the ten dollars a month they paid in Venezuela, those who were members of the Party and the UJC had to give up a percentage of it. I don't remember if it was 10 or 15%, because I never belonged to any of that."

To award the Nobel Peace Prize to Cuban doctors who carry out missions in other countries would mean legitimizing the system of slavery to which the Government of Cuba subjects them; one from which these two professionals, like so many others, have had no choice but to escape.

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