22 Saint Lucian Students Relive
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.