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Eight Cuban medics sue Caracas and Havana for 'forced labour'

Text by Lorena GALLIOT

Latest update : 2010-02-26

Seven Cuban doctors and a nurse have accused their government of engaging in a “modern form of slavery” with Venezuela after bartering their services for cheap Venezuelan oil.

Seven Cuban doctors and a male nurse who claim they were made to work against their will in “inhuman and degrading” conditions in Venezuela have filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Miami, where they have been granted asylum.

The lawsuit seeks at least 60 million dollars in compensation for each plaintiff, naming Cuba, Venezuela and Venezuela’s state-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) as defendants.

In 2000, Cuban President Fidel Castro and his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez concluded an “oil for manpower” deal, known as the “Convenio Integral de Cooperacion", under which the communist island supplied Caracas with trained professionals and equipment in exchange for cheap subsidized Venezuelan oil. The doctors have described the deal as a “modern form of slavery” and say they fled to Miami to escape “servitude for debt”.

'A modern form of slavery'

The eight medical workers, two women and six men, were enrolled in a Venezuelan government mission called “Barrio Adentro”, in which doctors are posted in poor neighbourhoods to provide care to Venezuelans free of cost. Cuban doctors are often sent to remote or dangerous parts of the country, like the border area with Colombia, home to drug traffickers and FARC rebels.

The doctors told reporters at a press conference in a Miami suburb on Tuesday that they were forced to enrol in the programme with Venezuela due to dire economic circumstances and political pressure at home.

According to several US and Venezuelan media sources, the plaintiffs described being held captive in crowded lodgings or with families affiliated with the Venezuelan regime, and forced to work seven days a week. “We were under strict surveillance at all times. We weren’t allowed to go out when we wanted to or interact with Venezuelans other than our guardians,” plaintiff Frank Vargas, a 33-year-old general practitioner from Havana, told reporters. His colleague Maria del Carmen Milanés, 34, added that interacting with known regime opponents was especially forbidden.

Five months in hiding

Had they protested, the doctors explained, they would have been forced to return to Cuba where they would have paid for their insubordination. They said they went into hiding for over five months before they were able to travel to the United States in January, sneaking out less than once a week to find food and plan their escape.

The eight plaintiffs are represented by Miami lawyer Leonardo Canton, who has indicated to reporters that he is ready to represent any other Cuban doctor in the same situation who wishes to join the lawsuit. Canton believes there is a “70% to 80% chance” that the suit will be successful, adding that if this is the case, PDVSA assets in the United States could be frozen by court order.

In 2008, a Miami judge awarded 80 million dollars to three Cubans who claimed they were forced into slave labour at a shipyard on the island of Curacao. However, so far none of it has been collected.

Date created : 2010-02-25

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