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“The evidence suggests that all classes of Venezuelans continue to prefer public hospitals to Barrio Adentro, even as the quality of medical services in the former has deteriorated.”
The cable added: “To the extent that President Chavez has acknowledged Venezuela’s health care crisis, (Venezuela’s government) has looked to Barrio Adentro and Cuba – and not the public hospitals – as the solution.”
What do Venezuelans think of Cuban physicians? An answer was suggested by a “secret” embassy cable sent in January, 2006. Its title: “Cuba/Venezuela Axis of Mischief: The View From Caracas.”
The cable’s focus was on Cuba’s growing influence in Venezuela, including by Cuban intelligence agents. But it also dealt with “free” Cuban health care, stating: “Anecdotal reporting suggests the care Cuban doctors provide is often lacking and that many ‘physicians’ are actually medical students.”
Cuban doctors were earning about $400 per month, but they apparently weren’t being paid up front. According to the cable: “A Cuban physician told [the U.S. Embassy's] medical advisor…that he received room, board, and toiletries but that the Cuban Government was ‘holding’ his salary until he finished his two-year tour. ”
Citing an interview with a local legislator, one embassy officer reported that some “Cuban doctors complained bitterly that the Cuban regime held their families hostage while the doctors relied on local donations to survive.”
Cuban Physicians Flee
Not surprisingly, hundreds of Cuban physicians have sought and been granted visas from the U.S. Embassy, according to two separate embassy cables describing the plight of Cuban physicians. The doctors complained of “poor working conditions, inadequate medical supplies, and of constantly being watched and monitored by co-workers,” according to a “secret” embassy cable sent in April, 2009, and titled: “Cuban Medical Personnel Flee Venezuela.”
Most of the asylum-seeking physicians managed to leave Venezuela, but in many cases only after suffering harassment from Venezuelan officials or paying bribes of up to $1,000, according to a “confidential” embassy cable sent in February, 2010, describing increased harassment of asylum-seeking physicians.
Here are some horrific examples of Venezuela’s health-care crisis cited by the embassy cable dealing with Venezuela’s collapsing health-care system:
- “Criminals go to the public hospitals to rob, steal, and even kill patients. The emergency room in Hospital Vargas is only open for twelve hours-between seven in the morning and seven at night-because of security concerns.”
- In the impoverished Catia area of Caracas, 140 physicians staged a mass resignation at one of the area’s “two largest and most important public hospitals” for poor Venezuelans. They were upset over unpaid wages and benefits, lack of hospital funding — and the Health Ministry’s suspension of four physicians accused of “inciting” patients to protest poor hospital conditions.
- An embassy officer was told by an unnamed person (the name was deleted by WikiLeaks or an embassy official) that Venezuela’s government had “suspended doctors to discourage them from speaking out about the health care crisis. Last year four doctors were suspended when they exposed the accidental death of six babies in a maternity ward.” According to the unnamed person, Venezuela’s government “has limited the role of the resident doctors in hospital management and transferred authority to local community councils.”
- Shortages of basic medical supplies have prompted physicians “to ask patients to purchase their own needles, disinfectants and gauze.” A Venezuelan whose name was deleted in the embassy cable (presumably by WikiLeaks or an embassy official) told an embassy officer that “doctors sometimes dress wounds with the same dirty bandages. Other patients are told to bring their own X-rays from private clinics. In many areas of Caracas, public hospitals suffer from water shortages, forcing doctors to postpone important operations. In some of the older public hospitals, the plumbing systems cannot pump water above the first few floors of the building.”
- “The maternity ward of the Lidice hospital – considered the second most important in Caracas for many years – has now been closed for two years, while Catia’s other major public hospital, Los Magallanes Jose Gregorio Hernandez, has been partially closed for over a year while awaiting renovation.”
- Salaries for physicians are “barely enough to cover rent in Caracas.” Accordingly, “many doctors have left the public hospitals in search of other jobs, while some of the most qualified have left the country to earn better salaries abroad. In a December 4 press report, the Venezuelan Medical Federation (FMV) estimated that the public hospitals are understaffed by 43 percent.”
- An unnamed Venezuela (his name was deleted) told an embassy officer “that the quality of healthcare in the public hospitals has deteriorated as (Venezuela’s government) has redirected resources to Barrio Adentro. Although Barrio Adentro has translated into political gains for President Chávez , its medical impact is questionable, despite having received massive government investment.”
As revelations of the embassy cable are publicized, expect the hyper-sensitive Hugo Chávez to go into a frothing anti-American rage.
David Paulin, a freelance journalist, is a former Caracas-based foreign correspondent.
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