Cuban Doctors Defected Because of Medical System's Shortcomings

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( Two Cuban Doctors Wednesday accused the Castro government of offering tourists and members of the Cuban communist hierarchy better health care than the average Cuban and said that was the main reason they decided to defect to the United States.

Doctors Leonel Cordova Rodriquez and Noris Pena Martinez defected back in May while on a Cuban medical mission to Zimbabwe.. After nearly being sent back to Cuba, imprisoned in Zimbabwe and sent to Sweden, the doctors finally reached Miami and are now political refugees in the US.

Rodriguez, who speaks little English, told a luncheon meeting at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, "in the last few years, the problem of keeping up with the health care of the Cuban population has gotten worse. The different services, depending on who you are, the conditions for those in our (medical) field, the misuse of resources and the level of satisfaction of health workers are elements of trouble brought by those responsible in the totalitarian regime imposed by communism in Cuba."

"In the meantime," Rodriguez continued, "foreign tourists and Cuban revolutionary leaders enjoy the best medical attention and resources in well-equipped hospitals without feeling the lack of resources that the Cuban population [endures."]

Rodriguez said you have to be a member of Cuba's communist hierarchy to get top health care services, including the best medicines.

"They have everything necessary to attend the patient. Any kind of medicine. It doesn't matter if the medicines came from [the] United States ... they have the best and the most advanced laboratory equipment. But it's very different when the Cuban people have to go to the hospital. If you are a member of the communist party, you are to receive the best attention. But you have to be a very high member of the communist party," Rodriguez said.

Both doctors believe Cuba steals American medical ideas and methods and adopts them as their own in teaching medical courses.

"They say that the methods that are utilized at the (Cuban government) medical school in Havana are American methods and the textbooks are also American textbooks," Martinez said, speaking through an interpreter.

Neither physician believes that relaxing the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba will help the citizens of that island nation.

"The Cuban people, whether there is an embargo or not, will suffer the consequences," Martinez said.

Rodriguez said, "The U.S. embargo on Cuba does not affect the people but directly affects the Castro regime. Any kind of deal with Fidel Castro is time wasted. Neither food nor medicine is going to reach the people. There are many organizations in Cuba that it will reach to provide the people such items but Castro will not allow it."

Rodriguez is a physician and Martinez is a dentist. They decided to defect while in Zimbabwe taking part in a Cuban medical mission back in May. After a month in detention in Zimbabwe, the pair wound up in Stockholm, Sweden, where they were granted U.S. political asylum by the U.S. embassy there. They are in the United States under "political refugee" status.

Zimbabwe security agents arrested the doctors May 24, a few hours before a scheduled asylum interview, and forced them to secretly board a European commercial aircraft with Havana as the final destination.

But the plan hit a snag in South Africa after the pilot refused to fly them any farther. The doctors slipped a note to airline officials claiming they had been kidnapped after denouncing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. South African authorities sent the doctors back to Zimbabwe's capital city of Harawe., where they stayed in custody until the United Nations High Commission on Refugees learned about the doctors' plight and convinced Zimbabwe's government to release them.