Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Doctors await news on US asylum

AP , BOGOTA

At least 38 Cuban doctors who defected from a mission in Venezuela have been stranded for months in Colombia, where they have been refused refugee status as they await word on possible asylum in the US, according to a relief organization.

The doctors find themselves here despite a shift in US policy, announced in August, that allowed Cuban medical personnel working abroad to come to the US once they passed routine background checks.

Most of the defecting doctors who fled to Colombia have been waiting as long as six months for a response, according to an advocacy group in Miami and several doctors. At least two have been rejected by US officials.

Jorge Toledo, a 39-year-old physician, and his wife, ophthalmologist Leticia Viamonte, were told in a Dec. 27 letter that their request to enter the US under the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program was denied. The decision cannot be appealed.

Joanna Gonzalez, a Homeland Security spokeswoman in Washington, declined to comment on the Cuban doctors.

But she said that any applicants under the program "must pass a background check," like others seeking to enter the US. The US Embassy in Bogota declined to comment on specific asylum cases.

Colombia's Foreign Ministry said the government has not decided whether to grant refugee status to Cuban doctors who have applied for asylum here in recent years. The ministry said there were 45 such cases.

Julio Cesar Alfonso, president of the Miami-based relief organization Solidarity Without Borders, said his three-year-old organization has provided economic and legal assistance to 38 Cuban doctors trying to leave Colombia. He estimates the overall number of doctors who have defected and are living here could exceed 100.

"There's no explanation for the delay -- these applications should've taken a maximum two or three months," said Alfonso, a Cuban-trained physician who immigrated to the US seven years ago.

Cuban officials last year said they had 31,000 doctors serving in humanitarian missions in 68 countries around the world -- a major point of pride for the communist nation.

They said more than 20,000 are on loan to Venezuela and another 1,700 are based in Bolivia, whose leftist President Evo Morales is a frequent visitor to Havana.

More than 500 doctors are believed to have fled the two missions in recent years, most in Venezuela, Alfonso said.

Like Toledo and Viamonte, most asylum-seeking Cuban doctors are just scraping by because they are unable to work in Colombia without refugee status.

The couple said they applied for refugee status at the US Embassy on Aug. 11, the same day the new program was announced in Washington.

Only one of the seven other doctors who applied that same day has so far been granted entry to the US, they said.

Toledo and Viamonte were assigned to Venezuela in mid-2003 as part of the Miracle Mission in which Cuba and Venezuela have provided free eye surgery to more than 375,000 poor Latin Americans.

The couple said they were forced to work seven days a week for little pay in the countryside near Caracas, and their relations with Venezuelans were tightly controlled.

They sneaked into Colombia in December 2005.

Like other Cuban doctors here, Toledo and Viamonte live in fear of being deported to Cuba.

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