Photo: Mabel Sarmiento
“It’s been three years since I bought new shoes. I patch up the ones I have, and try to keep them from the rain. I take care of them as if they were a baby,” Isabel Peña told me when she protested outside Catia’s Hospital Periférico. She, along with her co-workers, has been on active strike for 25 days, called by the Capital District’s Nurses Association.
In Venezuela, a nurse doesn’t earn more than Bs. 5,000,000, less than $2 a month. A uniform costs over Bs. 30,000,000 —six monthly wages— and the special shoes they use can cost up to Bs. 90,000,000 —18 monthly wages. Low salaries and terrible working conditions pushed the sector to the streets, in a country where protests are criminalized and people are imprisoned for exercising a constitutional right.
She, along with her co-workers, has been on active strike for 25 days.
For Isabel, however, repression, the economic chokehold and the intimidation of colectivos don’t deter her from joining the strike. “I come from Los Valles del Tuy and I sleep in the hospital to avoid having to pay the bus fare. Sometimes I ask for my night shifts to be paid with food; a kilo of rice, for instance.” She has a degree in Nursing, 22 years of experience and her salary is one of the highest in the institution she represents. However, she can’t afford the basic food basket, which costs more than Bs. 200,000,000.
On Friday, July 6, the government gave the nurses a single Bs. 20,000,000 bonus, enough to buy a kilo of powdered detergent, cheese and meat. That’s why the strike that demands proper wages, better working conditions and guarantees hasn’t been lifted. Bioanalysts, nutritionists, dentists and pharmacists across 20 states in the country have joined the protest. Since Tuesday, July 10, doctors all over the country decided to only treat emergencies in hospitals, in support of the nurses’ strike. Ten hospitals and healthcare centers in Caracas have chosen to support the strike as well.
The National Hospital Survey of 2018 showed that 79% of healthcare centers lack surgical material and 88% suffer medicine shortages. Already in 2017, 51% of surgery rooms in Venezuela were out of order.
Poor salaries spark protests
Currently, there’s no possible salary compensation; unless they’re offered a raise equivalent to the one given to military officers, 2,400% on average.
Luis Morales, a nurse at Caracas’ University Hospital, earns about Bs. 800,000 —less than half a dollar —fortnightly. Morales works at the hospital, in a home for the elderly and does night shifts in a private clinic. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be able eat or pay the bus fair. I scarcely see my family. It’s a huge sacrifice.” He’s been a nurse his whole life, but he doesn’t have the work benefits to purchase a house. His severance package amounts to less than $1.
The hospital crisis and low wages for healthcare workers have caused a national strike and active street protests. However, there’s no improvement in the horizon. Health Minister Carlos Alvarado, who took office on June 25, when the strike started, has given no signs of wanting to make progress in negotiations. The nurses expected him to fulfill his promise to meet with them on Monday 9 and Tuesday 10. Nevertheless, that never happened. Now the workers are threatening to take the protest to Miraflores.
The hospital crisis and low wages for healthcare workers have caused a national strike and active street protests.
Ana Rosario Contreras, head of the Capital District Nurses’ Association, reacted to the State’s negligence by ratifying the strike and announcing possible mass resignations in the sector. “We’re willing to give our support because we have nothing to lose. Our severance package is worth 400 grams of milk. That’s our reality. We’re not afraid,” said María Díaz, a nurse, while a group of workers behind her shouted: “We save lives with misery wages while soldiers who assault and destroy lives get millions.”
Venezuela is characterized by a long history of a healthcare system accessible to all Venezuelans. Today, however, despite the government’s great interest in capitalizing the illusion that they’ve offered new health options for the poor, the truth is that doctors, nurses, analysts, pharmacists are the ones who subsidize the health of Venezuelan citizens.