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'The minute you arrive, they're mistreating you': the harsh experience of a Cuban doctor who worked in Venezuela

You cannot go to church, get home late, socialize with Venezuelans, and certainly not fall in love with someone, without the Party's permission ... for breaking those rules, Elisandra del Prado will not be able to see her young son … for eight years.

Dr. Elisandra del Prado in Venezuela.
Dr. Elisandra del Prado in Venezuela. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Cuban doctor Elisandra del Prado Torres, a specialist in Comprehensive General Medicine, studied for a Diploma in Physical and Occupational Therapy to join the medical mission in Venezuela and also took the Communist Party's political course. She arrived in Venezuela on January 16, 2020. A few days later, she wanted to return to Cuba.

"The minute you get there, they're mistreating you. They don't give you a proper meal for a person coming off a trip, or adequate accommodations. They send you to a house, while they organize your assignment, because I didn't have an exact one when I arrived in Venezuela," said the 31-year-old professional, the mother of a four-year-old boy.

"There were several rooms, and each one had like six or seven bunk beds. The food was terrible. The first meal they had was a kind of broth. It was inedible. The next day, I didn't even get any breakfast. I arrived at 8:00 in the morning and it was already over."

"I spent about three days there, and they sent me to the State of Lara, where I was in another house for three more days. It was like a prison. There was a long corridor with four rooms, and in each one there were six or seven bunks. There they put men and women together, in the same room, which shows a total lack of respect. For breakfast they give you an arepa; not even, it was a flour thing that you could barely eat, cold. And that was it. Not even a little milk, or tea. Nothing. There wasn't even water to drink. That killed me, ever since I got to the mission. I was longing to return to Cuba, to tell you the truth. I couldn't even communicate with my family. They don't even allow you to communicate with your family."

In Lara, they sent her to La Estancia, a place near Barquisimeto, which she described as "pretty quiet. It wasn't dangerous."
"I was there for a month and a half working as a physical therapist. There were quite a few patients who required treatment. They were open in the morning and, in the afternoon, I was free. But you had to be at the CDI (Comprehensive Diagnosis Center) from 8:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon. I couldn't go home to do chores, shop... nothing."

"Later, they transferred me to the municipality of Torres, to an outpatient clinic, which was like a small apartment house. It had two rooms, a kitchen-dining room and a bathroom. I shared it with two housemates. Then, with the epidemiological situation that arose with the Covid-19 pandemic, they decided to move us to a large house that they called la casona. There were like 12 workers there together, and some six rooms. In each there were two or three people."

"Bucket by bucket"

Describing the new home, Elisandra stated that it was "in very poor condition. There were windows, but there were no blinds. So, the rooms were open. For you to change or something, you had to put up a sheet, because otherwise they could see you, even from the outside. The house got wet; there were problems with the electricity; there were outages all the time, as the workers themselves had done the connections. There was no furniture, no way you could tell that there were professionals living there. They put Cuban television, via a decoder box. The washing machines were in poor condition."

"As the house had two floors, there was a four-burner stove downstairs, and another upstairs. The mission did not take responsibility for filling up the gas tank. Sometimes each worker would contribute something of theirs from the mercal, and they'd sell the stuff. With that they would fill the gas tank," she explained.

The mercal is a bag that Cuban professionals are given with three packages of flour, three of rice, three of spaghetti, three of sardines, and three of some Chinese beans that she first saw in Venezuela. "And they think that you can live for a month on that. Oh, and, of course, you have to pay for it."

Outside the house there was a cistern from which the workers carried water "bucket by bucket", to bathe, scrub and wash, because "there was no plumbing, per se." But if they only had to carry the water from the cistern, that would have been fine.
"When the water ran out, because it would arrive every 15 days or so, we all had to go to the CDI to bathe and take some bottles of water to wash ourselves, make breakfast ... We had no access to any type of drinking water."

To have a relationship with a citizen, first you had to inform them

On top of the housing conditions, the lack of water, and the cooking problems, there was the lack of freedom. "I'm a Christian, and they forbid you from gathering, going to churches. If you go to a church, that can constitute a violation (...) They stress that you cannot associate with them (Venezuelans), you cannot get close to them, you cannot talk about politics, because they don't want the truth about Cuba to be known."

There was even a person in the house who was in charge of reporting when the workers got home. Arriving after 6:00 in the afternoon was a breach. "The coordinator would show up at the house to see where I was, and barge right in, as if he were my husband."

One time they organized a disciplinary commission, made up of the Party representative and different members of the CDI, to analyze Del Prado’s "situation." They accused her of violating the house's schedule, and questioned her "excessive" relationships with Venezuelans, because she had many friends among the people there, and was involved in a romantic relationship.

"That's what they try the hardest to prevent. What the Party told me was that, in order to have a relationship with a citizen, you had to inform him beforehand, so that they could look into it and, with their permission, then you could continue with that relationship.

On March 13, after her shift, Del Prado handed in her paperwork to the coordinator and asked for permission to go to the center to shop.

"He told me that I was not authorized, because the bosses were going to come to analyze my situation. Without thinking twice, I picked everything up and left. And I never looked back."

A colleague later informed her that the coordinator had told him that if he saw her on the street, he shouldn't acknowledge her. He also told her that the CDI had moved to repudiate certain people, to analyze "the desertions," as hers was not the only one.
Her housemate has suffered retaliation by the coordinator, who believed that she knew about Del Prado's intentions, a contention that the victim denies.

Del Prado describes the consequences of leaving the mission as "painful" and feels psychologically affected.

"I was hoping to go to Cuba, to see my son, to bring my family many things that I had bought for them. It was a big sacrifice to bring the dollars here and make those purchases. I already had all my luggage to take there, for my family. I really wanted to see my son, my mother (…). It also affected me economically, as the money I have in Cuba, in the bank… they're not going to give it to me, or my family. And I can't return to Cuba for eight years, something that I consider totally unfair, inhuman, something that violates the principles of the ‘Revolution’. Whoever invented that is a degenerate."

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