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U.S. mulls ending program that urges Cuban doctors to defect

As part of the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, the Obama administration is considering ending a program that encourages Cuban doctors and nurses working outside of the country to defect to the U.S. The program has approved more than 7,000 applications since 2006. Reuters White House Correspondent Jeff Mason joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington, D.C., to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For the past decade, the United States has encouraged Cuban doctors and nurses working outside Cuba to defect to the United States.

    Since 2006, the U.S. has approved more than 7,000 applications, according to the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. Now the Obama administration is considering ending the program as part of the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.

    Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason was one of the first to report the story and joins me now from Washington.

    How did the program work? How did we get 7,000 applicants in the system?

  • JEFF MASON, Reuters:

    Well, the program basically works by allowing Cuban doctors who are overseas because they have been sent abroad by the government to apply at U.S. embassies for entry into the United States.

    And the State Department gives these embassies and U.S. officials abroad pretty wide latitude to approve those applications and to get those applications going. So, it's — it's a program that Cuba actually very — it is actually very proud of, because it sends — or it's basically exporting their medical professionals abroad to help in places that really need it.

    They also earn money from doing that. So, they certainly — the Cuban government certainly saw it as a pretty big slap in the face.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And so I remember hearing about how many Cuban doctors were there in Africa to treat Ebola.

  • JEFF MASON:

    Right.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In almost every natural disaster that happens around the world, you always hear of a large number of Cuban doctors that are there.

  • JEFF MASON:

    Yes, that's right.

    I mean, the Cuban doctors are known for their — for being very skillful medical professionals. And it's — again, it's something that the Cubans are proud of. And so sort of poaching them away into the United States was one of the many thorns in the side in that relationship, both for Cuba and among many that are thorns in the side of the United States as well.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, some of the doctors that were defecting also complained about the fact that they weren't getting paid what these foreign countries was paying Cuban.

  • JEFF MASON:

    Right.

    I mean, it was a moneymaker for Cuba. One of the examples is, they send — Cuba sends a lot of medical professionals to Venezuela in exchange for oil and elsewhere in the world. And the Cuban doctors themselves, though they were probably making a more competitive salary than they were back at home, they were not taking in all the revenue that the Cuban government was taking from sending those people abroad.

    So, that was indeed one of their complaints and one of the reasons that they took up this opportunity from the United States.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As we start normalizing relations, has that encouraged people to say, you know what, let's go ahead and put in our applications now, caused almost a surge in the last year, or what is the Cuban government doing about this?

  • JEFF MASON:

    Well, the Cuban government actually has clamped down on the number of doctors that they allow to leave Cuba and to participate in these programs abroad.

    And that is actually something that led the United States, which, as I reported, has put this program under review — that is being in part of — included in part of that review right now. So, the Cubans have taken some — some action to reduce those numbers because of the poaching and because of the number of people leaving.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Reuters White House correspondent Jeff Mason, thanks so much.

  • JEFF MASON:

    My pleasure.

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