VENEZUE­LAN NIGHT­MARE!

22 Saint Lucian Stu­dents Re­live

The Star (St. Lucia) - - FRONT PAGE - By Clau­dia Elei­box

FOR­MER ED­U­CA­TION MIN­IS­TER ROBERT LEWIS: DID HE KNOW BE­FORE­HAND WHAT WAS IN STORE FOR ST. LUCIAN MED­I­CAL STU­DENTS WHEN HIS OF­FICE AS­SURED THEM THEY WOULD BE IN GOOD HANDS?

Ican­not say for cer­tain that the habit is pe­cu­liar to my fel­low Saint Lu­cians: we talk and talk and talk, usu­ally where there is no one able to do some­thing about our com­plaint, but few of us ever act on our words. All talk, no ac­tion. We love to blame govern­ment for not do­ing what we could eas­ily do for our­selves. Mean­while we en­dorse with our si­lence or with our no-ac­tion talk all va­ri­eties of cor­rup­tion and the worst in­sults to the na­tion’s in­tel­li­gence. Or we com­plain be­hind a veil of anonymity. Are we re­ally at heart a na­tion of cow­ards? How long will it take be­fore the penny drops, be­fore we re­al­ize there’s a price to pay for our com­pla­cence, that in fact we’ve al­ready paid a lot? Far too much!

In Oc­to­ber 2014 a schol­ar­ship is­sued by the Em­bassy of the Bo­li­var­ian Repub­lic of Venezuela was ad­ver­tised locally. Some 60 young Saint Lu­cians ap­plied. Of that num­ber 23 were selected by the Venezue­lan Em­bassy. The fol­low­ing July, 22 of them flew with their lug­gage at their feet to Venezuela, aboard a mil­i­tary air­craft that cer­tainly was not built for com­fort. They ar­rived at their des­ti­na­tion the next day about 2 a.m., then were taken the next morn­ing on a three-hour drive to the school from which they ex­pected to grad­u­ate with a med­i­cal de­gree: Es­cuela Lati­noamer­i­cana de Medic­ina (Latin Amer­i­can School of Medicine). It turned out to be noth­ing like what they had been promised by six vis­it­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Venezue­lan govern­ment and the lo­cal min­is­ters of health and ed­u­ca­tion.

This week four of the stu­dents vis­ited the STAR to re­live, for the ben­e­fit of other Saint Lu­cians, their ex­pe­ri­ence at the Latin Amer­i­can School of Medicine that had been highly en­dorsed by the Saint Lucia govern­ment of the day. The ex­cited stu­dents were as­sured that in Venezuela they would be in good hands. Re­al­ity proved the con­trary. The stu­dents told the STAR they were not all that per­turbed by the tiny quar­ters al­lo­cated them. But the other fa­cil­i­ties, es­pe­cially the bath­rooms, were stom­ach-turn­ing filthy. There was no wel­com­ing com­mit­tee. For a full week the ner­vous young Saint Lu­cians were left on their own. When fi­nally they were taken to their school more dis­ap­point­ment con­fronted them: dis­or­ga­nized classes; lec­tur­ers that the stu­dents could’ve taught a thing or two; no Span­ish classes for stu­dents who spoke only English. Then there were the 40 days they spent in quar­an­tine, dur­ing which they suf­fered food-poi­son­ing and dengue. Oth­ers with asthma suf­fered re­peated at­tacks. The only med­i­cal at­ten­tion af­forded the stu­dents, they claim, was painkillers.

Af­ter in­creas­ing worry and sus­pi­cions they de­cided to con­tact the Non-Res­i­dent Ambassador to ALBA and Petro­caribe of Saint Lucia. He was sym­pa­thetic to their plight and tried to help as much as he could, even hav­ing the stu­dents’ par­ents ar­range for $10,000 worth of food, elec­tronic and house­hold items to be shipped to them in Venezuela. In­ex­pli­ca­bly the items never reached the stu­dents.

Still they per­se­vered.

The stu­dents were de­clared the school's top per­form­ers. It turned out that the Latin Amer­i­can School of Medicine was not ac­cred­ited. But the govern­ment of Saint Lucia as­sured the stu­dents they would do for the school as they had done for Cuba's ELAM and for Spar­tan Health Sciences Univer­sity at home. But then the stu­dents dis­cov­ered the Venezue­lan school was not rec­og­nized even by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. They learned from fel­low stu­dents that the Venezue­lan fa­cil­ity was “a scheme cre­ated by Hugo Chavez and Fidel Cas­tro to pre­pare stu­dents who were only per­mit­ted to work in Venezuela.” Daunt­ing news, es­pe­cially since they were bonded to Saint Lucia for seven years on grad­u­a­tion. The stu­dents passed on to of­fi­cials at home all they had learned.

Mean­while the sit­u­a­tion was grow­ing worse for the stu­dents, now num­ber­ing just 20. They en­coun­tered dead bod­ies at the school gates; they were un­able to walk the streets to buy es­sen­tial goods with­out be­ing ac­costed; most of them were robbed at gun­point.

In a let­ter to the Saint Lucia govern­ment dated 17 March, 2016 the stu­dents wrote: “For many of us, the gift of a full med­i­cal schol­ar­ship seemed too good to be true. We had never ex­pe­ri­enced such good for­tune and we were in the high­est of spir­its. So op­ti­mistic were we that even in the face of many dis­ap­point­ments from the very first night we ar­rived we were not ready to be­lieve our dream was al­ready slip­ping out of our hands. Our great­est dis­ap­point­ment came, af­ter when we found out that our pro­gramme was not valid . . . To date, two stu­dents are no longer with us due to con­stant stresses. Even so, we have been work­ing ex­tremely hard to en­sure that we are the best per­form­ing del­e­ga­tion in the school and we are proud to say that we are . . . We do not be­lieve that our dream is achiev­able here and it seems that both time and re­sources are not be­ing op­ti­mized. These con­cerns are also ex­pressed by stu­dents from other del­e­ga­tions who have started leav­ing the coun­try. Scores of stu­dents from var­i­ous del­e­ga­tions have left be­cause they could not en­dure the ex­tent of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal un­rest they reg­u­larly faced. At this stage, with no hope of re­ceiv­ing a rec­og­nized qual­i­fi­ca­tion, it is hard to jus­tify re­main­ing in Venezuela. There­fore, we are ask­ing that the Govern­ment of Saint Lucia look with kind­ness and ur­gency upon our sit­u­a­tion and as they have be­fore, as­sist us in re­al­iz­ing our dreams.”

Eleven months passed be­fore the stu­dents were brought back by the govern­ment to Saint Lucia. And only af­ter the head med­i­cal ad­vi­sor confirmed the school was not ac­cred­ited. “Why did you stay so long in Venezuela?” I asked. The re­sponse from the four-mem­ber com­mit­tee was quick: “If we had just packed up and left, we would've been in­debted to the govern­ment. Our rep­u­ta­tion would've been ru­ined. We'd kill any chances of re­ceiv­ing any other schol­ar­ships.”

On 4 June, 2016, two days be­fore the gen­eral elections, the stu­dents ar­rived in Saint Lucia where proper food and beds awaited. One more time the day's govern­ment as­sured them ev­ery­thing would be all right. But the Labour Party ad­min­is­tra­tion lost the elections and those who had ar­ranged their Venezue­lan mis­ad­ven­ture had more im­por­tant mat­ters on their plates.

Some three weeks af­ter the new ad­min­is­tra­tion took of­fice the stu­dents met with the new ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Gale Rigob­ert. Also in at­ten­dance were rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Hu­man Re­source De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment and the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion, as well as the for­mer Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary Es­ther Brath­waite. Prom­ises were made that the new govern­ment would make con­tact with other coun­tries in an ef­fort to get the stu­dents back on track for their time lost. Since then, no talks, no talks, no talks. The stu­dents' rep­re­sen­ta­tive com­mit­tee claimed to have reached out sev­eral times to mem­bers of the Chas­tanet govern­ment, in­clud­ing the prime min­is­ter's at­taché and an­other of his ad­vi­sors, only to have their hopes fur­ther dashed. Peo­ple whom they be­lieved might be help­ing, moved to other de­part­ments and never in­formed the stu­dents.

One par­tic­u­lar of­fi­cial made a last­ing im­pres­sion on the young stu­dents. “She was very con­de­scend­ing, very de­grad­ing,” said a mem­ber of the rep­re­sen­ta­tive com­mit­tee. “She just kept bash­ing us, ask­ing why we hadn't con­sid­ered try­ing to get schol­ar­ships on our own. She might just as well have spat in our faces. She told some­one to shut us out be­cause we looked hun­gry enough to eat them.”

Nearly ev­ery govern­ment of­fi­cial who talked with the stu­dents and their par­ents en­cour­aged them not to tell the me­dia their story. And for some time they were silent. The stu­dents be­lieve the govern­ment is try­ing to avoid any diplo­matic prob­lems with Venezuela. The stu­dents say the were told by of­fi­cials of the new govern­ment that they don't qual­ify for avail­able schol­ar­ships. This the stu­dents do not be­lieve on the grounds that they had cho­sen Venezuela although they had been of­fered other schol­ar­ships back in 2015. “We chose Venezuela be­cause we were given so many as­sur­ances.”

At time of writ­ing, ed­u­ca­tion min­istry of­fi­cials were un­avail­able for com­ment. Mean­while, the grossly dis­ap­pointed stu­dents hang on, re­gard­less, to their dream—but are also fast los­ing hope!

Schol­ar­ship re­cip­i­ents back in Saint Lucia claim the govern­ment let them down.

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