Debunking the Myth of the Cuban Medical Mission in Venezuela

Chávez’s government made of Misión Barrio Adentro one of the main tropes of its worldwide propaganda success. But that program was really a fiasco, instrumentalized by its creators: castrismo officers with proven experience in selling a lie for decades.

Photo: Embajada de Cuba retrieved

Along with the myth of the “good revolutionary” (“el buen revolucionario,” brilliantly deconstructed by Venezuelan writer Carlos Rangel) the myth of the Cuban healthcare missions has fed the idea of an “altruistic international solidarity” of the Communist regime. The reality is much more nuanced, as denounced by Héctor Schamis in an article about the corruption, exploitation, human trafficking and human rights violations around the Cuban medical mission in Brazil, with the complicity of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, representative of WHO for the Americas).

But this myth is still strong in the mindset of progressive journalists, scholars and editors. I recently experienced this biased perspective when two editors dismissed my pitch for this story, because it was “too esoteric” for their readers and it had no interest in the Canadian context.

The Canadian public tends to have an idealized point of view about Cuba and its revolution; what I frequently hear from progressive Canadians is that Cuba is an “exceptional” country that was able to resist American imperialism and has been “innocuous” to the politics of this hemisphere. Even the Canadian governments (liberal or conservative) give “preferential treatment” to Cuba, as Professor Yvon Grenier discussed in his article, “Cuba, sí, Venezuela, no? A double standard in foreign policy.

But the Cuban regime has been, and still is, a highly destabilizing factor in the current Venezuelan crisis that is affecting the entire Western Hemisphere. The so-called “medical missions” are just part of a scheme of disruption, corruption and propaganda.

40 billions dollars to dismantle a healthcare system

Since Chávez launched it as Misión Barrio Adentro (MBA) in 2003—in the midst of growing unpopularity of the charismatic leader and in preparation of the recall referendum of 2004—the Cuban medical mission was justified as a way to improve access to primary healthcare services to poor Venezuelans. The balance is actually negative, according to the cost-benefit analysis made by Professor Jorge Díaz Polanco. The Bolivarian regime has paid around $40 billion to Cuba for a combined package of “services” (medical mission, sports trainers, and military and intelligence cooperation). 33 thousand healthcare personnel have participated in the program, and Cuban corporations mediated in the acquisition of medical equipment for the so-called Centros de Diagnóstico Integral (CDI,) dedicated to diagnostic assistance.

The Cuban regime has been, and still is, a highly destabilizing factor in the current Venezuelan crisis that is affecting the entire Western Hemisphere.

According to Díaz Polanco, the Cuban medical mission contributed to a greater fragmentation of the Venezuelan healthcare system, and has had a negative impact in the overall financing and organization of the public hospitals and provision of services. The professor qualified Barrio Adentro as “the biggest healthcare scam,” and a “medicine that was supposed to service the poor, that became a poor medicine.”

The main paradox is reflected in the cost-benefit ratio: $40 billion “spent” that didn’t solve the main health issues in Venezuela, including the absence of a truly public healthcare system, as prescribed by the chavista Constitution of 1999.

In a recent Facebook post, Venezuelan physician Gustavo Villasmil, former Health Secretary of Miranda State, pointed at the complicity of PAHO in the embellishment of these poor results: “During several years the Venezuelan medical community denounced, with data, the healthcare tragedy caused by the so-called ‘Misión Barrio Adentro’ that was lauded by the international bureaucracy ascribed to that organization (PAHO). A sample of this (masquerade), is their official document with the title: ‘Barrio Adentro: the right to health and inclusion in Venezuela’ published in 2006. 150 pages of ‘bullshit,’ praising a policy that cost Venezuelans the amount of $34 billion transferred to the Havana regime to pay for ‘medical services,’ and a million deaths in 20 years of chavismo, according to the estimates made, among others, by professor (Ricardo) Hausmann from Harvard.”

Recent assessments about the social, economic and health conditions of the Venezuelan people shed serious doubts about the positive impact of the Cuban medical cooperation and Barrio Adentro Mission’s benefits for the poor. Physician and professor from Universidad Simón Bolívar Marino González concluded that all health and social indicators have deteriorated in recent years. The data available, according to González, “show the deep deterioration of living conditions of Venezuelans in these two decades, particularly in the last four years.”

A survey conducted by González and other social researchers concluded that Venezuela has the worst results when it comes to maternal mortality in the Americas since 1998 (only surpassed by Cuba), low healthcare financial coverage (the worst coverage in the hemisphere), the highest level of de facto privatization of healthcare services, and a trend towards more deterioration due to hyperinflation, impoverishment, collapse of public services and infrastructure, shortages of medicine and medical supplies, destruction of public hospitals, and an alarming increase in child malnutrition, as reported by UNICEF.  

Several health indicators show a grave internal crisis in Venezuela, with potentially regional sanitary consequences: new HIV infections jumped 24% from 2010 to 2016; dengue fever cases are increasing, and the presence of the four strains of the virus has been confirmed; the Venezuelan malaria outbreak was responsible for 84% of the increase in infections in the Americas in 2017, and Venezuela alone contributed to 53% of all reported cases regionally in 2016 and 2017, according to the World Health Organization.

Recent assessments about the social, economic and health conditions of the Venezuelan people shed serious doubts about the positive impact of the Cuban medical benefits for the poor.

As Schamis wrote in his article about the Cuban medical mission in Brazil, there are serious allegations showing that the so-called international cooperation is a source of human trafficking, exploitation, forced labor and corruption. In a recent class action complaint by a group of Cuban doctors in a Miami court, the claimants accused PAHO of having endorsed and managed the contracts signed by the Brazilian government in 2013 with the corporation Sociedad Mercantil Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos (CSMC ), receiving a payment of $75 million for its administrative “services.”

Where does this leave us? As always, follow the money, especially hard currency, to understand the real interests behind the internationalist communist solidarity. You might be capitalist to the marrow, or socialist to the death… but it’s always about the bloody money.