A University of Kansas Medical Center neurology fellow overcomes a 20-year struggle to escape oppression in Cuba
May 31, 2018
By Greg Peters and Michelle Strausbaugh
Ernesto Alonso-Labori, M.D., dreams of a day when he can show his two small children the island nation where he was born and the city of Guantanamo where he grew up. A fellow in the University of Kansas Medical Center Department of Neurology, Alonso-Labori knows that even with all the changes going on in Cuba it will be some time before a return to his homeland would be safe.
For now, he and his wife Taily, their children, Daniel, 2, and Laura, 9 months, are content to call Kansas City home while he completes his fellowship before moving on to private practice.
"I think things are going to change, but I don't think it's going to be very fast," said Alonso-Labori, who arrived in Miami at the age of 35 in 2008. "Cuba needs international help. Everybody is afraid to lose their jobs. Everybody is afraid to go to jail. So people are just waiting ... waiting ... waiting."
Alonso-Labori began planning his escape from Cuba more than 20 years ago. After graduating from medical school in 1997, he spent two mandatory years doing mainly social services work as a family medicine doctor in rural areas of Cuba while he waited to get into a residency program. Then, after nearly three years in an internal medicine residency program, Alonso-Labori was still eager to flee the repressive Cuban government of Fidel Castro, so he applied for a visa lottery that would allow him to immigrate to the United States.
"When I won the lottery, at least I got hope," he said. "But when I showed them my lottery winner, they expelled me from my residency program. I was in my third year. I had three months left."
As punishment, Alonso-Labori was cast into a career limbo where his next stop would be working at an emergency medical post. He was told that if he did well, it would only last three to five years, depending on the results of his annual evaluations. Instead, he labored at the emergency medical post for six years making $20 a month.
Finally, Alonso-Labori and 80 to 90 other health care workers banded together in a letter-writing campaign, threatening to take their cause to the United Nations. It was truly a risky gamble, but the government folded, and Alonso-Labori was granted his release to come to the United States.
"We decided to do it because we had done our part," he said. "We completed our five years, and they didn't let us go. We joined together, and in the end it worked out."
At last out from under the thumb of Castro's oppressive regime, Alonso-Labori moved to Miami to begin life anew.
"I made my decision to move when I was 21 years old, and I finally arrived here when I was 35," he said. "It's really hard to escape from Cuba. All those years I was fighting to escape. It was overwhelming. Sometimes I thought it would be impossible."
Life in America was busy but rewarding as he endeavored to become certified as a doctor. He took on all sorts of health care jobs from emergency medical technician to physician's liaison while studying to earn his license to practice medicine in the United States. Even though things were hectic, Alonso-Labori could sense he was progressing toward an attainable goal, unlike in Cuba where he toiled not knowing if all his hard work would lead to success.
"Since I've been here, I've never been frustrated," he said. "I knew it was part of the process. I was fighting for a goal, but I could see I was making progress. In Cuba, I was working, and I was fighting, but I didn't see any results. Here I was working hard, but I was very happy."
Alonso-Labori completed a one-year internship in Puerto Rico, where he met his Cuban-born wife, followed by a preliminary residency year in an internal medicine program, also in Puerto Rico. After passing four qualifying exams, he was accepted as a second-year neurology resident at KU Medical Center.
"I've been here for three years, and it's been an excellent place," Alonso-Labori said. "I've been very happy here, and I'm very thankful for this opportunity."
So happy, in fact, that he became a United States citizen two years ago.
"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "Finally, I feel free. I have the right to vote. I have dual citizenship, but I was happy to have the right to vote for president."
On both personal and professional levels, Alonso-Labori knows he made the right decision to leave Cuba. He is well aware that the life of a doctor in Cuba would have meant low pay, a lack of resources, constant government scrutiny and the continual threat of being sent to serve wherever in the world the leadership deemed necessary.
"Everything in Cuba, including the doctors, you are like a slave," he said. "The government controls everything over there."
Still, there are times when Alonso-Labori thinks back on the friends and family he left behind in Cuba.
"That was really sad," he said, recalling the days after he left. "Every day I was thinking of them. When I woke up, I said thanks to God for bringing me here. I just don't know how things are going to change over there.
"I've been trying to help them. I sent some money, and I called to give them my support. But I know it's not enough. They need freedom."