Medical Servants Not Slaves – published in The Huffington Post

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“What I will miss most about Cuba is waiting in the bread line.”

So says a young Cuban doctor displaying humor before leaving for Venezuela. The Medica is strikingly beautiful, resembling a young Gloria Estefan of Miami Sound machine fame. But there the resemblance ends. The women — both Cuban — are as opposite socially, politically and ideologically, as music is to medicine. Twenty-four-year old Dr. Yaquelin Manero Bastista believes that music may soothe the savage beast, but it takes a doctor to cure him.

Medicine propelled Dr. Bastista, from the tiny sugar-mill town of Baquanos to the University of Holguin, in the eastern province’s capital city. There, after six years of intense study, she earned her medical degree with a specialty in physical rehabilitation.

“The most rewarding experience in my career so far was helping to bring a child into the world,” she says, her dark eyes sparkling.

Tomorrow, Dr. Batista will board a bus to Havana, the first leg of a journey that trades her healing skills for oil.

Like the majority of Cubans, she’s never been off the island. That changes next week when she boards a plane for Caracas, Venezuela. On the eve of her departure on a two-year mission, though nervous and excited, Dr. Bastista gathers with her cousins, economist Susan, and Tanya, the owner of a soon-to-open hair salon. Tanya is my fiancée – already I’m family. The trio, close in age, are flowers from the same stem, raised together in the countryside as sisters, best friends.

The exchanges tonight are lively, full of remembrances punctuated with laughter. But, beneath the surface of the gathering, apprehension lingers. It’s fear for Dr. Bastista’s future. The young women are aware of how dangerous Venezuela has become, so concern for the dedicated doctor is real.

“I will miss the freedom of Cuba.” she adds seriously. In Venezuela she will be behind locked doors, from dusk to dawn, a necessity for her and her colleague’s safety. “I like to walk the streets of Holguin, sometimes late at night. I will miss that.”

Once in country — after a week of orientation — she will be assigned to one of the barrios or rural pueblos where she and other health professionals will treat Venezuela’s poor. “Doctors for oil” it’s called. And it’s the most important exchange in Cuba today. Venezuela supplies the largest of the Antilles with 100,000 barrels a day in payment for these trained medical professionals — a sweetheart deal, say some.

To Dr. Batista, the politics are unimportant. In serving, she sees only the chance to help and learn. Many of the health problems she will deal with in Venezuela have been eradicated in Cuba, so opportunity overshadows the danger of living in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Dr. Bastista describes the selection process with pride — passing the interviews, background checks, and personal recommendations by neighbors, colleagues and teachers.

For her service, two-hundred convertible pesos (approximately two-hundred dollars) per month will be deposited in a Cuban bank. On her return, Dr. Bastista will be issued a debit card for the account that also authorizes a 30 percent discount for purchases in government stores. Should she serve another two-year term, she would be eligible to purchase a late-model car at a substantially reduced price.

Oil for Doctors would appear a win-win situation for Cuba and Venezuela alike. But critics of the program exist in both countries

Many complain the assignment of so many medical workers across South and Central America and Africa deprives Cubans of sufficient doctors needed to staff its own highly touted free-health-care system.

On the Venezuela side, many criticize the cost of the medical service, believing it overpriced.

“Even though my group will total 70 doctors from Holguin province,” Dr.Batista explains, “it will create no shortage. Each year, Holguin University graduates between 500 and 550 new doctors. Add those to the returning medical personnel and the care of our countrymen will not suffer.”

“As far as the cost, what price can one place on a life, be it the birth of a healthy baby, the curing of disease or the relief of pain? Ask a poor Venezuelan mother or father what price they place on the health of their children.”

The party breaks up finally, no one wanting to leave. These women have grown up together, sharing so much of their young lives and are fully aware tomorrow will bring an end to a part, one that will never be relived.

Susan will soon will leave the island to live with her new husband in Switzerland, Tanya will remain in Holguin and, with the opening of her business join an emerging class of Cuban entrepreneurs.

It’s a new story in Cuba, young people heading off island, striking out, experiencing a world outside the revolution.
Today, thanks to the 2013 elimination of the hated “exit visa” by current president Raul Castro,
most Cubans may come and go as they please- or as their personal finances allow. No longer branded traitors to the revolution, now they retain their property and citizenship while traveling abroad.

Cuba currently claims some 80,000 medical personnel serving in more than 20 countries worldwide. In Brazil, arriving doctors have been met with protest and branded “medical slaves.”

Told of this, Dr. Batista merely smiles. “Do I look like a slave to you?

Cuban Travel Tip #4

Cuba Travel Tip #4
Cuban American travel agents are invaluable to those desiring to visit Cuba. Not only will they book your direct flights, but can also save you money on rental cars.
Rental Cars in Cuba are never cheap and not always available during peak tourist months – December thru April. By reserving and paying for your car through an agent here, you’re guaranteed a vehicle upon arrival.
Also, by paying for the car in dollars, you avoid the currency exchange charge when converting dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos.
I use Caribe Travel in Tampa. A complete list of licensed travel providers can be found on the O.F.A.C website.063

Cuban Travel Tip #3

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Once you’ve selected a General License category, you’ll need to find a flight that fits your schedule. In Florida, ABC Charters flies out of Tampa and Miami to not only Havana, but Santa Clara, Holguin, Santiago and Cienfuegos as well. Flight schedules are on their website.
ABC Charter’s web page offers reservation service for other locations in the US, but a call to their office revealed no other airports service Cuba at this time. Other airports including O’Hare and Dallas-Ft.Worth have been licensed for flights to Cuba, so expect them to ramp up service soon.
When you Google “flights to Cuba” you will be directed to websites featuring passage through another country. In most instances the American emigration and customs officers in those countries have been dealing with Americans returning from Cuba for quite some time. Recent returnees from the island through Cancun or Nassau have experienced few problems.
If you can fly out of Tampa, I recommend it. Tampa wants to be known as a gateway to Cuba and the attitude of the customs and emigration officers are refreshingly welcoming.

Cuban Travel Tip #2

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Chinese built wind turbines near the spot where Columbus first saw in Cuba

Chinese built wind turbines near the spot where Columbus first saw in Cuba

Cuba Travel Tip #2

The first order of business when planning your trip to newly opened Cuba is finding out which General License category you will travel under. A General license requires no pre-approval or paperwork.
There are 12 classifications of General Licenses under the new rules ordered by the President and can be found on the O.F.A.C. website. Most involve organized groups with set agendas, but two are of particular interest to Americans who desire to see Cuba on their own terms.
“Support for the Cuban People” is my favorite.
If your concerned about an itinerary for O.F.A.C. – one that will never be ask for – remember, at this time any verification by our government is improbable.
So, visit the O.F.A.C site and pick your mission. And if your mission is a mission, (religious travel is allowed) tell emigration what the lady who just returned from the island with her Bible told me.
“Cuba is hungry for Jesus.”

Cuban Travel Tip #1

phil thompson cuba childrenCuba Travel Tip #1
When traveling to newly opened Cuba, in addition to all the Aspirin, Tylenol, and Vitamins you can muster, pack a couple of bags of hard candy for the children. It will elevate your status to visiting neighbor instead of simply a tourist. Remember to ask “con permisso” from the parents.
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See Cuba Now!

phil thompson cuba seminar2013-05-02 19.08.10-2IMG_2351See Cuba Now….Virtual Tour

Outdoor writer and author Capt. Phil Thompson’s articles about Cuba have appear in magazines and newspapers across the country.
Capt Phil’s narrated photo tour of Cuba “See Cuba Now!” offers a contemporary look at the island now luring Americans to its shores after a 50 year hiatus.
Beginning in exhilarating Havana with her colonial architecture and world renowned nightlife, this virtual tour crisscrosses Cuba ending in distant Holguin, a pearl nestled between a coast Columbus called “The most beautiful land eyes ever saw.” and the cloud mountain forest of the Escambia range.
Leaving Havana in good friend Chino’s 1953 Chevy, Capt Phil leads a photo expedition to remote regions of Zapata – the largest fresh water wetland in the Caribbean. From the wild coast of historic Bayo de Chochinas (Bay of Pigs) to the mountain lakes of Hanabanilla and Zaza, and through the historic center of Trinidad de Cuba, Capt Phil captures the pictures and the stories of the Cuban people and their incredible country.
A frequent Cuba traveler – beginning in the early 1990s – Capt Phil’s familiarly with Cuba and its customs provides invaluable up to date insight for those wishing to visit the largest of the Antilllies.
You may book “See Cuba Now” for your club or organization by contacting Capt Phil Thompson. philkeywest@yahoo.com