A great source of pride for communist Cuba is a medical corps that has fanned out across the globe for decades to help people in troubled or poor countries.
But don't tell that to doctor Orazal Sánchez, who spent much of his professional life in this brigade and grew disillusioned with what he saw as a system of oppression that is heavy on ideology and bogus solidarity towards host countries.
It was during a posting in Botswana's Kalahari Desert that he finally quit after becoming fed up with heavy-handed rules like being forced to surrender his passport and being encouraged by supervisors to inform on colleagues.
And even after he’d left the medical corps, he still felt oppressed by the Cuban government, which prevented him from returning home and refused to hand over his certifications, meaning he had to start his career all over again.
“The sad thing is that we are still slaves. We think we are free, but so long as we have family in Cuba, we continue to work for the system,” said Sánchez, 40, an endocrinologist.
Sánchez and two other former doctors in the program, who spoke to AFP using pseudonyms, shared similar concerns about the corps, one of the flagship initiatives of the revolution led by the late Fidel Castro since its creation in 1963.
Today it is one of the Cuban government’s most lucrative programs, bringing in $11 billion in revenue between 2011 and 2015. As of the end of 2018, 34,000 professionals worked for the corps in 66 countries.
Last month, an advocacy group called Cuban Prisoners Defenders together with a political group, the Cuban Patriotic Union, filed a complaint before the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the program.
The lawsuit before the ICC includes public testimony from 64 doctors in the program and 46 others who spoke privately.
The suit, in which the three doctors who spoke to AFP are plaintiffs, accuses former President Raul Castro and current President Miguel Díaz-Canel, of crimes against humanity for running a program that acts as a form of modern slavery.
Families at risk
Medical staff who refuse to join an overseas mission suffer terrible consequences in their careers, the doctors said. Meanwhile Havana views corps members who leave the program as traitors, and uses the threat of reprisals against relatives back home as a form of long-distance torture.
Delia Estelles, 37, said while serving in Guatemala she suffered sexual harassment, was subjected to forced political indoctrination, and had to contribute money to the Cuban communist party, all while surviving on next to nothing because her salary was so small, as most of what countries pay for the doctors is collected by the Cuban government.
Estelles took refuge in a now-defunct U.S. program called Cuban Medical Professional Parole.
She was admitted to the United States under the program, but wasn't able to bring her family, who remain in Cuba where shortages of basic goods are common.
“I send them everything, even deodorant and soap,” she said.
Yolanda García served in Venezuela, where she said Havana’s influence was so deep that “the Cubans control everything.”
García said she was encouraged to manipulate statistics and documents, making up names and identity numbers so the corps met its weekly target for the number of patients treated. But she was appalled after being asked to throw away medicine brought in from Cuba, where it was in short supply, so that inventories would correspond to the bogus treatment numbers.
After García deployed to Brazil along with 8,000 other doctors, Cuba canceled the program there following the rise of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro had demanded new conditions for the Cubans, including that their families be allowed to join them in Brazil and that they receive all the money that his government pays for them.
García decided to remain in Brazil rather than return to Cuba, which she’d grown increasingly disillusioned with.
“I can’t believe that all this money goes into these missions and the country is like this,” she said. “The last time I went there, I couldn't even find eggs.”