“The world has consented to slavery in more than 60 countries with the Cuban international missions. We cannot exchange health for slavery. The world must react.” Javier Larrondo, president of the NGO Prisoners Defender International, stated, referring to the repression suffered by Cuban doctors, professionals, athletes, and musicians who are part of the acclaimed missions of the Cuban government, which have existed since the 1960s and continue to operate in several countries today.
About 622 Cuban doctors denounced situations of slavery, intimidation by government officials, severe overcrowding, wage expropriation, the pressure to generate false income to improve statistics, and threats to family members by government officials at the UN through the NGO Prisoners Defender.
Last year, Prisoners Defenders denounced before the UN and the International Criminal Court the abuses of the Cuban government towards these professional groups who live under a regime of slavery. Months later, the UN, after analyzing the evidence and testimonies presented, qualified the activities of these medical professionals as “forced labor” at the service of the Cuban regime.
Corrupt state apparatus
The repression of Cuban doctors and professionals starts from the Cuban legal framework itself. For example, the so-called Migration Law No. 312 prevents Cuban professionals from having an ordinary passport. Furthermore, Cuban doctors must practice their profession for five years before they can migrate, and leaving Cuba without explicit permission is punishable by imprisonment. The situation has reached such a point of repression that a Cuban doctor cannot legally leave the mission or stay abroad since he could face up to eight years in prison in Cuba.
According to 405 testimonies from Cuban doctors gathered by the NGO Prisoners Defender International, 70% of those surveyed said they had not volunteered, and 16% said they had done so after being coerced in some way.
The NGO identified economic reasons such as the situation of extreme poverty or the impossibility of obtaining viable alternatives in the Cuban labor market. As for the coercive reasons, the Cuban doctors mentioned that the Immigration Law prevented the departure and emigration of their families, fears of being negatively profiled by the government, or the perception of some debt to the state for receiving free education.
The 8-year law
Although there is no de facto prohibition in Cuban law, Article 135 of the Cuban penal code, along with the current migration law, creates a legal loophole. Any Cuban doctor who abandons a mission has to go into exile for eight years from Cuba because the de facto law considers them undesirable. Therefore, they are denied access to the country. And if they enter Cuba, they can be arrested.
Since March, Cuba has sent nearly 1,500 medical professionals to different countries around the world to collaborate with the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. These professionals are in addition to the approximately 30,000 Cuban health workers already working abroad.
Today, in 2020, 5,000 to 10,000 parents cannot see their children again because they left work on a mission or did not return to Cuba immediately afterward. At least for eight years, or more, depending on the person’s “behavior” abroad, such as not making a public denunciation of their case. The family is not granted permission to leave, nor are those abroad given the option to re-enter Cuba. Further, 10% of the 405 protected testimonies of these “deserters” indicate that they tried to enter Cuba to visit their family, children, or parents after abandonment or the end of the mission despite fears that article 153 of the Cuban penal code punishes them with eight years in prison for entering the island. But they were prevented from entering even when they were already on Cuban soil.
The net salary of a Cuban doctor abroad is about 426 USD, of which, about 20% of the professionals do not get the whole amount, and up to half of this salary can be frozen in deposits of the Cuban government.
Doctors’ salaries have become a blackmailing measure for the Cuban government. The regime often charges foreign countries ten times the amount it pays to the doctor whom it sends to work. With low pay, stringent state supervision, and cramping personnel in tiny spaces, the regime keeps its doctors in a state of defenselessness that allows for easy control.
Missions are so restricted that about 80% of the doctors interviewed stated that they had to follow a personal or political code of conduct. About 40% of the doctors said that a Cuban official took them away and kept their passports. Some 77% indicated that they were warned not to have friendly or sentimental relations with natives that were not approved by the regime; 74% stated that they could not spend the night outside the assigned site without approval.
Furthermore, the Cuban regime also forced doctors to accuse their own colleagues. About 76% of the doctors interviewed said that they had to report any suspicious situation in which a comrade might abandon his work. And if they did so, they were forced to repudiate the conduct of their comrade in an act of revolutionary reaffirmation.
To give an account of the magnitude of the problem, Cuba receives about 8.5 billion USD a year from these missions, while tourism plus incoming remittances barely contribute 6.9 billion USD overall. In the last 57 years, more than 100 countries have hosted these missions within their borders, making them complicit. Although this money hardly reaches Cuban doctors, the regime does use it to perpetuate itself in power while keeping its doctors in virtual slavery and profiting from their abuse.