16 Cuban Doctors Speak Up about Threatening Sick Venezuelans

After leaving Venezuela, a group of Cuban doctors from the Barrio Adentro program told the New York Times how they were instructed to use healthcare—or rather its collapse—as a political weapon to coerce people into voting for Venezuela’s socialist leaders.

Photo: Cuba en Miami, retrieved.

“There was oxygen, but they didn’t let me use it,” said Dr. Arias, who defected from the Cuban government’s medical program late last year and now lives in Chile. “We had to leave it for the election.”

Yansnier Arias told the New York Times the story of how he couldn’t help a 65-year-old patient who urgently needed oxygen because his Cuban and Venezuelan superiors instructed him to dole out the precious gas as a political weapon to be used only in the days before the 2018 presidential election.

In a new piece, Nicholas Casey sheds some light on how Hugo Chávez first, and then Nicolás Maduro, used the Cuban medical mission in Venezuela to segregate and force patients to vote for them.

Other 15 doctors interviewed acknowledged being instructed to do similar things. From telling patients they’d be cut off from medicine distribution programs if they didn’t support the government and enlisting others in the Venezuelan Socialist Party when they handed them medication, to denying epilepsy treatment to a patient because she didn’t want to ask for a carnet de la patria, the Chinese-made card Maduro created in 2017. “I don’t want anything to do with this carnet de la patria! I don’t want anything to do with Maduro!” he recalled her shouting. She was sent away without medication, “because she was from the opposition,” said Dr. Arias to Casey.

She was sent away without medication, “because she was from the opposition,” said Dr. Arias to Casey.

These statements are shocking but not surprising. The Venezuelan government has used “social benefits” as a coercion method for years. Dr. Carlos Ramírez, a dental surgeon, recalls doing house-to-house visits, carrying vitamins and antihypertensive drugs. Once he and his colleagues gained the patients’ confidence, they had to instruct them on how to vote. These practices were present since the beginning of the Barrio Adentro program, when Chávez brought the first group of Cuban doctors back in 2003, as a response to a series of strikes organized by the Venezuelan Medical Federation. But after he died, and given Maduro’s lack of popular support, the situation escalated.

“It was hard with Chávez, but with Maduro it was worse,” another Cuban doctor said. “It became a form of blackmail: You’re not going to have medicine. You’re not going to have free health care. You’re not going to have prenatal care if you’re pregnant.”

In a recent interview on a Colombian news channel, Army General Carlos Rotondaro, former president of the Venezuelan Social Security hospital network, and one of the main culprits of its destruction, confirmed part of these accusations.

When confronted with these claims, representatives from the Cuban government rejected the doctors’ assertions, saying that their mission to Venezuela has saved millions of lives, patients that, according to the official rhetoric, had been left to die by the “Fourth Republic,” the 40 years of democracy before Chávez. Contrary to their claims, and to what Casey suggests in his report, healthcare has been a Constitutional right in Venezuela since 1961, 38 years before Chávez attributed the honor to himself.

By 2015, the government went as far as giving white robes to officers from the Sport and Agriculture ministries, who visited patients pretending to be doctors, telling people to vote for the PSUV candidates for that year’s National Assembly election, while giving them medications without even knowing what they were.

Barrio Adentro failed in pretty much everything it was supposed to do, but willingly or not, their members ended in an extremely successful coercion force that exploited those vulnerable, for political gain. Those involved knew they were breaking every single oath they’d made when becoming doctors, and they may have loathed what they were doing, but they did it anyways.

I want to think that being in their position I would have done differently, Venezuelan doctors have been obligated to work in an extremely adverse and sometimes threatening environment for years, yet most of us do our best to help chavistas and anti-chavista patients alike. Maybe those Cuban physicians had no alternative, being themselves hostages of their own system; most have left the country, some returned to Cuba, but many, like those interviewed by Casey, used Venezuela to escape to a new life in free countries.

And the fact that they decided to tell the world the real nature of their work takes courage, and it’s yet another step in dismounting the lies on which chavismo built the one thing it actually cares about: its image.

You can read the whole piece in the New York Times here.