Since 2006, Cuban doctors and some other health workers who are serving their government overseas have been able enter the U.S. immediately as refugees, The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday.
They come to the U.S. through the little-known Cuban Medical Professional Parole immigration program, the newspaper said.
Data released to The Journal under the Freedom of Information Act shows that through Dec. 16 1,574 CMPP visas have been issued to Cuban doctors by U.S. consulates in 65 countries.
Cuba has been sending medical "brigades" to foreign countries since 1973, helping it to win friends abroad, to back "revolutionary" regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in 77 countries.
Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams -- revenue that Cuba's central bank counts as "exports of services" -- vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year. Many Cubans complain that the brigades have undermined Cuba's ability to maintain a high standard of health care at home.
The U.S. immigration initiative is reminiscent of the sort of gamesmanship that was common during the Cold War. It has interfered with Cuba's program by triggering defections of Cuban medical personnel all over the globe -- an average of one a day since the U.S. countermeasure began in 2006. Cuba generally does not include doctors among the 20,000 or more Cubans it authorizes to immigrate to the U.S. each year.
State Department officials said it is not the intention of the U.S. government to use the immigration program to engage in espionage or to disrupt medical missions. Cuban doctors, a State Department spokesman said: "are often denied exit permission by the Cuban government to come to the US when they qualify under other established legal channels." One goal of CMPP is to get Cuba to change that.