Cuban doctor defects in Brazil over pay, seeks asylum

BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Cuban doctor working in Brazil sought asylum on Wednesday complaining that Cuba’s communist government takes too big a slice of her pay, authorities said.

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Ramona Rodriguez, 51, sought refuge on Tuesday in the office of Ronaldo Caiado, leader of the center-right Democratas party in the lower chamber of Brazil’s Congress, and slept the night on a sofa.

She is one of 7,378 Cubans who are in Brazil as part of a program that hires foreign doctors to tend the sick in slums and remote rural locations where there are no Brazilian physicians.

Under an agreement signed last year with Cuba through the Pan-American Health Organization, or PAHO, the Cubans get only one-fifth of the 10,000 reais ($4,100) a month that Brazil pays each physician in the program. The rest goes to the Cuban state.

The Cubans get paid 800 reais in Brazil and 1,200 reais are deposited in an account in Cuba for their families, who are not allowed to accompany them to Brazil.

Rodriguez arrived in Brazil in October and was working in Pacajá, in the Amazon state of Pará, until she took off on the weekend and made her way to the Brazilian capital. She told Brazilian media she felt cheated.

Caiado, waving a copy of the PAHO contract in the air during a speech to the chamber, accused President Dilma Rousseff’s government of exploiting the Cuban doctors like “slave labor.”

The Brazilian government said Rodriguez filed a request for refugee status, which in Brazil is granted by the Ministry of Justice.

Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo said Cuban doctors lose their visas to stay in Brazil when they abandon the More Doctors program, indicating that Rodriguez would have to leave the country if asylum is refused.

He denied police had searched for Rodriguez or tapped her telephone as the doctor claimed in statements to the media.

Rodriguez is the first Cuban doctor to defect since 5,378 started working in Brazil last year. Another 2,000 Cuban doctors arrived in recent days.

The Health Ministry said 22 Cuban doctors had returned home, either for medical or personal reasons since the program started seven months ago. The medical program will earn Cuba more than $300 million a year.

($1 = 2.42 reais)

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Dan Grebler