Terrorists believed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab are demanding a $1.5 million ransom to release two Cuban slave doctors abducted in April, Kenyan elders sent to Somalia to negotiation for their release said on Thursday.
The elders, who command respect from both the Kenyan government and the jihadi organization, said they found Landy Rodríguez Hernández and Assel Herrera Correa healthy and cared for, forced to work for al-Shabaab treating injured terrorists. Kenyan newspapers report that the government, which has previously said it does not pay ransom for terror hostages, will send the elders back into Somalia to negotiate the price.
Gunmen attacked the Mandera Hospital in that Kenyan state last month, killing a security guard protecting the two doctors and hauling them away. Authorities have failed to identify the assailants but have detained and questioned the driver tasked with keeping them safe on their commute to the hospital.
Rodríguez and Herrera were in Kenya as part of a deal between Nairobi and the communist Castro regime to import about 100 doctors from Havana to work in the nation’s most remote areas in exchange for profits that go to the regime and training Kenyan doctors to become specialists on the island. The deal triggered nationwide protests by unemployed doctors in Kenya, who objected to the government hiring foreigners while demand existed among domestic doctors for those jobs.
Cuba forces doctors to take missions abroad working in what NGOs and activists have called slave conditions, making only a meager “living stipend,” blocked from seeing their families while abroad, or socializing with locals. The Cuban government is believed to make an estimated $11 billion a year on the slave doctor trade.
Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper reported Thursday that the elders, local authorities on the Kenyan-Somali border, returned with a demand from the captors for 150 million Kenyan shillings ($1.48 million) for the release of the doctors. They confirmed that the terrorists are holding the men in Jubaland, a part of Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab a little over 100 miles from the Kenyan border.
“They seem to be under care and offering medicare services to the locals,” the Standard Kenyan newspaper quoted an unnamed “security official” as saying, coinciding with the Nation‘s reporting, which also cited a source saying “the doctors are well taken care of.” The Standard, contrary to other reports, stated that the officials in charge of sending the elders to negotiate have refused to confirm the details of their intelligence gathering.
“In the Somali community, elders are highly regarded and have the ability to resolve dangerous and sometimes complex issues,” the Nation noted, adding that elders had negotiated the release of over 500 al-Shabaab hostages prior to this latest case.
The Nation reported Friday that the Kenyan government had already sent the elders back to Somalia to negotiate, emphasizing that local officials in Mandera, where the abduction took place, refused to confirm the news on the record. The Cuban independent media outlet 14 y medio added that Nairobi had ruled out the possibility of paying a ransom for the doctors, leaving unclear what the elders would negotiate upon their return to the country.
Sources in Kenyan media also appear to disagree on if men who abducted the doctors are members of al-Shabaab or independent criminals who sold the doctors to the group for money, knowing that the two – a general practitioner and a surgeon – would prove valuable in helping injured terrorists. The Standard suggests the possibility that “the abduction could have been caused by medical business rivalry in Mandera after it emerged the doctors’ presence led to a sharp drop of cost of medical services in the area.”
Kenya agreed to import 101 Cuban doctors at an unknown price last year, many of them specialists. The deal triggered nationwide outrage given the high levels of unemployment among Kenyan medical school graduates, who demanded to know why the government did not trust them to take the jobs it gave to the Cubans. Kenya’s national medical professional association noted that the country housed over a thousand Kenyan doctors who were licensed and ready for work immediately and sued the Kenyan government, losing the lawsuit in June 2018.
The deal to import the doctors included payment in the form of education as well as money. Perhaps to placate the doctors’ associations, Nairobi agreed to send domestic doctors to Cuba for further training, claiming the Cuban doctors were necessary because not enough of Kenya’s doctors were specialists. This plan also resulted in widespread anger as Cuba’s specialty training programs are not generally up to international standards and Kenyan medical schools, which do meet those rigorous standards, are cheaper than their Cuban counterparts. Kenyan medical groups intensified their protests after doctor Ali Hamisi was found dead in his apartment in Havana, found hanged with a bedsheet.
The animosity that exists in Kenya towards the Cuban doctor agreement did not appear to trickle down to the doctors themselves. The Standard reports that patients and locals in Mandera who know Rodríguez and Herrera described them as “amiable, easy-going, and dedicated to the bone.”
“The pair braved difficulties of language barrier, culture disparities, separation from their families and distant rumours of insecurity, to deliver quality services to marginalised communities – until deranged terrorists struck,” the newspaper reported in the aftermath of the abduction. Their patients, according to the newspaper, “were left visibly shattered” at the news of their abduction.
The men are part of Cuba’s thousands-strong “white robe army,” a contingent of doctors forced to work abroad to generate profits for the regime. At the Organization of American States (OAS) this week, NGOs studying the doctor program described it as a font of “crimes against humanity,” including “enslavement, persecution, and other inhuman acts.” Doctors – part of a group of professionals that also includes musicians, professors, engineers, and athletes – are forced to work strenuous hours in dangerous parts of the world for little pay, the groups revealed. Doctors face banishment from Cuba for eight years if they defect and are not allowed visits from family or relationships with locals while on duty.
“We are talking about 50,000 to 100,000 professionals each year subjected to slavery by Cuba including doctors, but also teachers, intellectual artists, musicians,” Javier Larrondo, the founder of Cuban Prisoners Defenders, revealed to the OAS.
Many have rebelled. In Brazil, doctors attempted to sue the Cuban government for the entirety of their wages. Under previous President Michel Temer, the courts blocked the lawsuits. Current President Jair Bolsonaro issued a formal demand that Cuba pay the full wages to their doctors, resulting in Cuba withdrawing from the country entirely. Hundreds of Cuban doctors are believed to have accepted Bolsonaro’s offer of political asylum following the incident, despite this meaning they will not be allowed to see family in Cuba for at least eight years.