Defecting Cuban doctor: 'I had never been freer'
By MIRTA OJITO
Five years ago, Julio César Lubián was content with his life -- married, one daughter -- and with his job as a family doctor in a nice section of El Vedado, in Havana.
Then his superiors called with an offer he was told he couldn't refuse: ''Volunteer'' to go to Venezuela with the second contingent of Cuban doctors to travel to that country in the fall of 2003.
Three weeks later, he was sitting at a dinner, about five tables from Fidel Castro, for a ''last meal'' of lobster and other delicacies rarely seen by the Cuban people. The following day, his group left for Venezuela, the words of el comandante still echoing in his head.
''He told us, in a subtle way, that our role was to keep up our end of the political bargain so that Cuba would continue getting oil'' from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Lubián recalled recently.
DECISION TO ESCAPE
Unlike many other Cuban doctors, who see in an international mission an opportunity to escape the island, all Lubián wanted was to finish his mission and return home to his family. But, he said, being outside Cuba opened his eyes to the capriciousness of the regime. He began to plan his escape from Cumaná, the city where he was ultimately assigned.
But first, he needed money. He began to sell everything he could: his computer and computer table, his shoes, some clothing.
Eventually, he managed to accumulate about $200, enough to leave the mission, rent a room somewhere, and apply for a U.S. visa.
In January of last year, with everyone in town watching afternoon telenovelas, he packed his medical books, white coats and stethoscope. Outside, a friend of a friend waited for him in a car.
Lubián went straight to the bus station, where he paced from the waiting room to the bathroom and back again to kill the hours, praying that he wouldn't be detected.
FEAR OF DISCOVERY
His biggest fear: that one of his colleagues would be at the station for an authorized trip to Caracas and find him there, without permission to travel. No one did. And Lubián boarded the 9 p.m. bus to Acarigua, a city in northwestern Venezuela 16 hours from Cumaná.
For the next two days, his cellphone ran nonstop. His colleagues were calling, first worried, then asking for, and ultimately demanding, his return. On the third day, the calls stopped. After 72 hours, he had become, officially, a defector.
By then, he had managed to rent a room at the home of a friend of a family he had befriended in Cumaná. Being so far from where his colleagues were, he didn't have to hide, he said. He found a job in construction and, later, as a security guard. But he was always afraid, always watchful.
''I had never been more scared in my life,'' he said. "But I had never been freer either.''
Eventually, Lubián moved to Caracas, where he lives at the home of a friend while he waits for a U.S. visa. He works as a doctor at a private clinic. But the job is only temporary, he said.
Lubián, 46, has only one dream: the United States.