Family crusades for Cuban defector
HAVANA, CUBA · The details are as murky as they are puzzling. The facts just don't add up for Jose Bernal, but one is irrefutable: His son, Ulises, sits in a Venezuelan prison, accused of kidnapping.
Ulises' odyssey began in October when he boarded a plane to Venezuela as part of a Cuban medical brigade. When he arrived, he was sent to a slum about four hours west of Caracas, the capital.
An estimated 10,000 Cuban doctors have been sent to work in Venezuela as part of President Hugo Chávez's anti-poverty initiative called Barrio Adentro, or Inside the Neighborhood.
The program has garnered support from those who say it has provided health care to Venezuela's poor. But it has also created problems for Cuba's government because a few doctors like Bernal's son are defecting and resurfacing in Colombia, Spain or Florida, seeking asylum.
In December, Ulises Bernal Perez, 30, a doctor from Havana, went into hiding in Venezuela.
In February, he was arrested for allegedly kidnapping two Venezuelan television journalists as he sought to cross into neighboring Colombia. The reporter and producer say Ulises arranged to meet with them and then threatened them, according to published reports.
Ulises' arrest in February galvanized his family in Cuba and South Florida, where relatives have tried to secure his release.
In Havana, his parents have written letters and called officials from both countries in the hopes of helping their son, who remains in a Venezuelan prison. In Miami, his elderly aunt has taken a job to help her family and nephew.
Sitting in his ramshackle home on the outskirts of Central Havana, Jose Bernal slowly turns the frayed pages of a photo album, lingering over the images of his youngest son from his days as a chubby toddler to more recent snapshots of a young doctor.
For Bernal, these images are a heartbreaking reminder of a time when Ulises was free. "I feel so frightened for him," says Bernal, 58. "I don't know how he is being treated. He is a strong young man, but as his father I feel like I should help him. But how can I help from here? I have written the government,but we haven't been able to speak to him. We don't know anything."
But Bernal says his son managed to get an e-mail to him in which he described how the reporter agreed to help Ulises reach the border in exchange for an interview.
"He was never armed," Bernal says. "He might have had a pair of scissors.
"I had no idea he was thinking of doing something like this ... but I remember getting an e-mail where he wrote about how good he felt about the going-away party his friends had thrown for him on the evening of his departure to Venezuela. He wrote about how he felt happy, how marvelous it was to fly in an airplane for the first time. It struck me as odd because Ulises is a very reserved boy, but he seemed so happy."
Efforts to reach Venezuela's embassy in Havana for comment on the case were not successful.
The crisis also has put extra strain on the family as they struggle with how to help Ulises.
"Some mornings I get up to go to work at 4 in the morning, and I can hear my mother sitting outside on the porch where she thinks none of us can hear her crying for Ulises," says his brother Jose Enrique, 32, choking back his own tears. "All I know is that I see my family falling apart around me and there is nothing I can do to help my brother, my parents or any of them."
Ulises's father tries to comfort his oldest son but acknowledges the family's efforts sometimes seem futile.
"I've been out of work for several months because I have a respiratory problem, and the government has pushed to have me retire early. Now I don't have a salary and I may not get a pension so I can't even think how I would pay for the ticket to go to Venezuela," Bernal says.
The family has relied on help from Ulises' aunt, Laudelina Perez who has become a sort of financial lifeline. She sent money to her nephew while he was in hiding and periodically sends them help.
A petite woman, Perez, 67, has taken up the fight for her nephew in South Florida, where she has appeared on Spanish-language radio and television stations talking about her nephew's case.
"His mother has asked me to please take care of Ulises because there is nothing they can do from there," says Perez, who left Cuba in the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
"I've spent over $800 in telephone calls alone to Cuba to try and help Ulises, but I'm an old woman," she says. "I've tried calling people, the United Nations anyone, but I haven't really been able to get anyone to listen."
She recently took a job as a nanny to help out her family in Cuba as well as pay for the costly telephone calls, but she is uncertain of what to do next for a nephew she says is like her son.
"The last time I saw him he told me he had no hope of leaving Cuba but if an opportunity ever came up he would take it. ... I just never expected it to be this," she says.
Sandra Hernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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