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Is Cuba abusing its overseas workers? A Tampa dissident takes Cuba to court

BRONTE WITTPENN | Times Raul Risco, who was an attorney in his native Cuba, says his ultimate goal is to take his case to the United Nations\u2019 International Court of Justice.\uFEFF
Published Jul. 9, 2018

TAMPA — Raul Risco was once loyal to Cuba's socialist cause.

He says he served in the Cuban military as a lieutenant colonel and later worked for the government's Ministry of the Interior.

Then 18 years ago, disillusioned with socialism and a one-party political system, Risco became a vocal dissident in the city of Camaguey. This role, he says, landed him in a Cuban prison 300 times, for a total of five years.

For the safety of his wife and 4-year-old son, Risco sought asylum and moved with his family to Tampa 11 months ago. But his work as a dissident leader has not stopped.

Risco, 62, has filed a lawsuit in Havana demanding changes to the Cuban government's practice of sending professionals to work overseas as part of a system he says is akin to human trafficking.

His ultimate goal is to bring the case before the United Nations and its International Court of Justice.

"It is important for people to hear what is going on," said Risco, who was a licensed attorney in his former nation but now works for a cleaning service.

"I want more eyes on Cuba."

The Cuban government sends about 65,000 of its citizens to work in more than 60 countries. That's according to Cuba Archive director Maria Werlau, whose Washington, D.C., nonprofit aims to shed light on human rights issues in Cuba. Those professionals include doctors, teachers, athletic trainers, construction workers and musicians.

But Risco said those workers are poorly paid and poorly treated by their government. That's despite the valuable services they offer to nations that need doctors and nurses to serve impoverished areas.

Cuba charges those client nations thousands of dollars a month per employee, who typically spend two to three years overseas, Werlau said.

But under Cuba's socialist system, she said, these professionals receive at most 20 to 25 percent of what clients are paying for their services. The rest, Werlau said, goes to the Cuban government.

These overseas professionals drive Cuba's economy, Werlau said, adding that the Cuban government says they bring in more than $10 billion a year.

But while the workers willingly enter into the contracts, Werlau said, if they tire of the arrangement, or quit and go into exile, they can face severe sanctions from the Cuban government. They could be banned from returning to Cuba for up to eight years, and their families may not be allowed to join them overseas for at least five years.

And what these workers earn is placed in Cuban bank accounts that are accessible only when the professionals return home, Risco said. If they do not return to Cuba, he said, the government keeps their earnings.

"This is a form of punishment to prevent professionals from migrating," Risco said. "It is forced labor."

His client in his international lawsuit is Manoreys Rojas, a Cuban traumatology doctor stationed in Ecuador for 30 months. Risco said Rojas would have earned $4,000 for his time there.

But when Rojas' stint in Ecuador was up, he fled to Miami in 2016 and later planned to have his wife and 11-year-old daughter join him.

Rojas now works as an Uber driver in Miami. His family is still in Cuba.

In February 2018, according to the lawsuit, Rojas' daughter attempted suicide. She told her psychologist that it was because she missed her father.

Rojas flew to Cuba to be by her side but said he was detained at the airport and sent back to Miami.

His family, according to the lawsuit's translation, has been negatively "affected by the unjust behavior" of Cuba's immigration authorities.

It also says Rojas' time in Ecuador fulfilled his contract, so the Cuban government should not have banned him.

The lawsuit also says the government's practice is unconstitutional.

Risco demands that the Cuban government allow Rojas to return to the island nation and that his family be allowed to leave if they so wish. Risco said his lawsuit is akin to a class-action lawsuit in the United States, representing every Cuban "suffering because of this cruel" policy.

In June, Risco filed the lawsuit in the Provincial Court of Havana through an attorney friend who lives in Cuba.

Risco expects the Cuban courts to reject his lawsuit. Then, he said, he will take it to the Cuban Supreme Court, where it will likely suffer the same fate.

He explained that he needs "to go through the system like this" before bringing the issue to the United Nations' Human Rights Council or the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands.

Rafael Pizano, a spokesman for Tampa's dissident community, said the unfair treatment of Cuba's overseas professionals is the result of the government banning unions it does not approve of.

He said the nation's workers have no rights.

"For professionals in Cuba," Pizano said, "this exploitation is a reality."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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