CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – The Palestinian students were greeted like celebrities upon arrival in Caracas. President Nicolás Maduro wore a kaffiyeh headdress and played up their symbolic importance during an address broadcast across the socialist South American country.
"Today, Palestine enters the heart of Venezuela," Maduro declared in November when he greeted the first 119 recipients of a medical school scholarship, adding that the historic exchange with a key ideological ally had made him cry.
The program to train young Palestinians as doctors was to be the latest addition to an array of international solidarity programs the late President Hugo Chávez established, the best-known of which provides communist Cuba with cheap oil in exchange for the services of tens of thousands of health professionals.
But eight months later, about a third of the Palestinians have dropped out, complaining the program lacks academic rigor, according to interviews The Associated Press conducted with students, teachers and government officials. At least 29 have already gone home, while other dropouts are living in Caracas rent-free as they wait to receive plane tickets to go home.
The Palestinians who left the Yasser Arafat Scholarship Program, which included seven years of room and board at a state-run school staffed by Cuban doctors, said they weren't getting the training they needed to become recognized physicians. Dismissing those concerns, school officials say the young people were homesick and susceptible to manipulation by government critics.
The students' decision to leave prompted Venezuela to freeze the scholarship program that was supposed to bring in hundreds more Palestinians to study in various fields, according to an official in the Palestinian Education Ministry in the West Bank city of Ramallah. The young people's choices have raised diplomatic tensions between the two allies, said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Chávez, a self-designated leader of the developing world, was a vocal proponent of the Palestinians' right to statehood, which he saw as part of a broader battle against colonialism and the West.
Sandra Moreno, director of the Dr. Salvador Allende medical school, did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, nor did federal health and higher education officials.
Initially, the aspiring doctors were delighted to receive the scholarships named for Arafat, the late chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Many were escaping refugee camps, or leaving behind Gaza, which was ravaged last summer by a conflict with Israel that left more than 2,000 dead.
But the students who dropped out complain that their first year consisted only of Spanish language lessons and indoctrination about Venezuela's 16-year-old socialist revolution. They say they were surprised when their teachers presented a curriculum centered on community health and worried when doctors from other institutions warned that their education wouldn't meet international standards.
Fouad Fattoum, 19, said he asked program administrators to let him return to the West Bank in early June, but was told there was no money for airfare.
"I want to help my people, and what they need are doctors," Fattoum said. "I want learn as much information as possible and that's not what I would get in this program."
Departing students have also complained about crime in Caracas, which has a homicide rate that mirrors a war zone even in the absence of an armed conflict.
The Salvador Allende medical school, a sister facility to Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine, is named for the Marxist president of Chile who killed himself while being overthrown by a 1973 coup. The school outside Caracas is adorned with shaggy palm trees and busts of revolutionary figures.
Instructors and students at the school defend the curriculum, saying it emphasizes preventive medicine that has a greater impact on daily life than traditional training that might involve costlier diagnostic technology. Students accompany Cuban physicians on rounds in poor neighborhoods and attend classes emphasizing their work's social impact.
Biology teacher Sol Potino said that the Palestinians are probably just missing home and that students dissatisfied with the program should supplement their studies with additional research if they don't think they are getting the information they need.
"People criticize this kind of medicine because they know it's associated with the left," she said. "But you can make a lot of things better with just primary care, in terms of individual health and the health of a country."
Razi Sulaimon, who grew up in a West Bank refugee camp, said he believes his Venezuelan degree will enable him to work as a doctor and is among the many who are staying.
"It's a good program, and I like it a lot," Sulaimon said.
Mohammad Ramadan is among the students who have returned home. Working at a stone-cutting factory and living in a refugee camp near Bethlehem, he hopes to resume studying next year at a university in Spain. He'll have to pay his own way, but believes he'll get a more universally accepted degree.
Some departing Palestinians acknowledge they will probably have to abandon their dreams of studying medicine.
Anas Manasrah, who is waiting for a ticket to Ramallah, doesn't think Middle Eastern medical authorities would have accepted his degree. The 19-year-old now plans to study engineering.
"To study medicine in Palestine you need a lot of money, and my family can't pay," Manasrah said.
Fattoum, one of those waiting for a plane ticket, hopes for another grant to study medicine abroad, but Palestinian education officials have warned he'll be at the bottom of the list after dropping the Venezuela scholarship.
Still, he's happy he got to know South America. He sent a photo of himself at the Caribbean to his siblings, who like him had never visited the sea because they didn't have permission from Israeli authorities to travel to the Mediterranean coast a half hour away.
"I'm glad to be able to do things like go on road trips, but I thought I would be studying and learning pretty much every spare moment," he said. "I don't need so much relaxation."