Cuban government lays claim to physician's mind

April 16, 2006|By GARY MARX | GARY MARX,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

HAVANA -- Hilda Molina says her brain belongs to her. Cuban authorities apparently think otherwise.

Molina, 62, claims a top immigration official told her in 1997 and again in 2000: "You can't leave Cuba because your brain is the patrimony of the state."

Whether Molina's brain is hers may seem like a personal matter. So does the issue of whether she can travel to Argentina to visit her only child, whom she has not seen in 12 years, and meet, for the first time, her two grandchildren.

But Molina is no ordinary Cuban grandmother.

Once a leading physician, Communist Party member and national legislator, she was a shining star in Cuban President Fidel Castro's effort to transform Cuba into a scientific power.

Castro personally backed Molina's effort to start a neurological rehabilitation institute, which under her guidance pioneered fetal tissue transplants and other treatments for patients with Parkinson's and other neurological disorders. But she broke with Castro more than a decade ago and became a harsh critic of Cuba's tightly controlled socialist system.

Since then, Cuban officials have refused to allow her to travel overseas, even to visit her son, Roberto Quinones, a 42-year-old neurologist who fled Cuba in 1994 to study abroad, and grandsons, Roberto Carlos and Juan Pablo, who are 10 and 4.

"The pain I feel is more than you can imagine," Molina said sitting in the dim apartment she shares with her 87-year-old mother.

Cuban officials declined to comment for this story. But Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told an Argentine newspaper in 2004 that Molina would not be allowed to leave Cuba because her dissident activities are financed by the U.S. government, an accusation Molina denies.

Molina's high-profile campaign to visit her loved ones overseas has sparked years of controversy, criticism from human rights groups and tension between Cuba, and Argentina and other nations. As Molina spoke to a reporter last month, a Spanish Embassy employee knocked on her front door and handed her a letter from Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

In the letter, which Molina read aloud, Zapatero said Spain has taken up her case with Cuban authorities and would continue insisting that Cuba "authorize a trip to Argentina to visit your family."

Molina's case lays bare the collective nature of Cuba's socialist system, where individual rights are subsumed.

Castro has often said that while his country may be cash poor, it is rich in human capital. Everyone receives free education, along with health care, subsidized rent and other benefits.

In return, Cubans are expected to repay society through a lifetime of work for salaries that rarely top $20 a month. They lose control over many aspects of their lives, including the right to travel overseas or relocate from one part of the country to another without permission.

Castro supporters argue that limiting overseas travel is also a way to slow the brain drain that has hurt many developing countries.

The Cuban leader proposed that Molina's son and his two children visit Havana. Castro guaranteed their safety even though Molina fears her son would be detained if he came back.

But diplomatic sources say Castro's offer is unacceptable to Argentina as well as to experts such as Daniel Wilkinson, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, who argues that Cuba's refusal to allow Molina to visit Argentina violates international law.

"The idea of people who are educated by the state having an obligation to contribute to society is perfectly sensible," said Wilkinson, who wrote a report last fall critical of Cuba's travel restrictions and President Bush's tightened sanctions against the island. "But this is an extreme measure that undermines the right of people to leave any country, including their own. It is one of the most effective tools Cuban authorities have for intimidating people critical of the government."

For her part, Molina said she doesn't have any government secrets and, besides, her scientific knowledge belongs to "the international community, not to the Cuban government."

She fears that Castro is pursuing a vendetta against her for breaking from Cuban officialdom. ""

Raised in an upper-middle-class family in central Cuba, Molina said she shared her father's enthusiasm for the revolution and earned her medical degree in 1975 before specializing in brain surgery.

In 1989, Molina founded what is now known as the International Center of Neurological Restoration in Havana, a prestigious 136-bed facility designed to provide advanced treatment to even the poorest Cubans. Castro spoke at the institute's packed inauguration, which garnered a front-page headline in Granma, the Cuban Communist Party daily, that read, "An Institute of Enormous Human Importance."

Molina frequently traveled overseas to conferences, where she shared her research with other top neuroscientists.

But, in 1994, Molina said she clashed with Cuban officials after they insisted the institute begin treating paying customers from overseas.

While authorities saw medical tourism as a way to make money after the Soviet Union's collapse devastated the Cuban economy, Molina believed the practice betrayed the revolution's precept of treating everyone equally.

"The biggest disgrace is that someone sick from another country is worth more here than a sick Cuban," she said.

Molina resigned as the center's director, abandoned her medical career, gave up her parliamentary seat and returned a box full of medals she said Cuban authorities had awarded her over the years.

Gary Marx writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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