Last-minute Obama action on Cuban refugees strands defectors in Colombia

Sudden change in US policy? Check. No warning given to those en route? Check. Lives put in danger? Check. No, this story isn’t about the executive order that Donald Trump issued that temporarily suspended visas and refugee applications from seven nations known to either sponsor terrorism or have terror networks openly operating within them. This NBC News profile focuses on the executive action taken weeks earlier by Barack Obama, arbitrarily ending the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy on Cuban refugees.


Thanks to the abrupt change, a number of defectors who defected are now caught in limbo in Colombia, having escaped out of Venezuela — and they may have to go back to Raul Castro’s “paradise”:

Just like Lezcano, there are over a dozen Cuban doctors and other medical professionals who abandoned their posts in Venezuela and were in transit to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá when the parole program was abruptly ended. They say they cannot return to Cuba and they face deportation if they remain in Colombia. The only reason they risked deserting was to apply for the now defunct program.

The government of Cuba has said it will accept Cuban doctors and reincorporate them into the national health system. But, those stranded in Colombia insist this is not true. They say desertion is considered treason in the communist island. Those who defect are punished, medical degrees are revoked, and society scorns them.

Sending doctors and other medical professionals to countries like Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia on “misiones internacionalistas” is an important source of revenue for the communist island. In 2014, it totaled $8 billion – though recently they have scaled back on their operations in Venezuela because of the economic crisis.

Raúl Castro applauded the end of the CMPP. The government always said the program robbed the island of professionals they had educated. But according to health care workers, the “missions’ are equivalent to indentured servitude. They are pressured to meet a quota of patients per day, their accommodations are meager and they are paid a small fraction of what the Cuban government receives for their services. They say the parole program was their only way out.


Kudos to NBC for covering this aspect of the story, which has not garnered much attention over the past six weeks since Obama ended refugee applications from Cuban nationals. It certainly didn’t generate any of the wall-to-wall coverage seen with visa recipients stranded in airports four weeks ago. As newsworthy as those incidents were — and they were newsworthy — those visa recipients weren’t left to starve as these medical professionals were in fleeing from the oppression and near-slavery of Castro’s Cuba.

Of course, this is now the New And Improved Castro’s Cuba, right? Now that the travel embargo has been lifted, we’ll enter into a new period of understanding that will eventually usher in a new era of beneficent self-governance on the island. That depends in large part on tourists going to Cuba, though, because it’s a sure bet that most Cubans can’t afford to go in the other direction, and probably wouldn’t be allowed to leave at all anyway. Bloomberg reports that Americans aren’t as interested in dictatorship tourism as people assumed, however:

America, did you miss the travel industry’s memo declaring Cuba the hottest new destination?

Apparently. Service to the long-time U.S. foe began in September, but after just five months the largest carrier to the island, American Airlines Group Inc., cut daily flights by 25 percent and switched to smaller jets on some routes. Meanwhile, Silver Airways Corp. reduced weekly flights to six Cuban cities and JetBlue Airways Corp. downsized its planes so as to match lower-than-expected demand.


One problem is, ironically, capitalism in a closed society:

Today, most people traveling to Cuba individually classify themselves as participants in “people-to-people” exchanges, one of the dozen categories authorizing travel under U.S. Treasury regulations.

The policy thaw led to an immediate surge by “early adopters” who wanted to see the tropical island, said Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, a tour operator in New Rochelle, N.Y. “The number of passengers we were sending tripled in very short order, and it lasted all of 2015 and most of 2016,” he said. “And much of that was just the extraordinary level of awareness” of the Cuba policy changes.

But with liberalization has come a painful lesson in capitalism—for tourists, anyway. The new interest in Cuba led to rapid price inflation (as much as 400 percent) for state-run hotels, taxis, and other traveler services—before any U.S. commercial flights had begun. Some rooms now cost as much as $650 per night, serving as a major deterrent to Americans hunting for novel warm-weather destinations.

The hotels don’t take credit cards from US banks, either, due to the embargo that remains in place. Travelers have to carry a boatload of cash with them to cover the costs of the trip, which is never a comfortable situation at home or abroad. Those issues don’t apply to visitors from other countries such as Canada and the UK, so to some extent, it’s a self-inflicted issue for Americans looking for a little socialist chic on vacation.


The flip side of that, though, is that Cuba has had plenty of tourism prior to the diplomatic thaw with the US — and it hasn’t resulted in a renaissance of freedom for Cubans, either. Just ask the doctors starving in Venezuela and Colombia, the victims of Obama’s arbitrary change to the Cuban refugee policy.

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