Cuban doctors bring hope to Venezuela’s barrios

In recent months, Cuba has strengthened agreements made with the Venezuelan government, aimed at improving the living conditions of the Venezuelan working class through social projects ranging from free sports training to a massive literacy campaign. One of the most impressive contributions has been in health care, which the Chavez government aims to revolutionise by providing virtually free medical care via local clinics, with the help of thousands of Cuban specialists. Cubans are involved in similar campaigns from Honduras to Argentina; perhaps it is this solidarity that US Secretary of State Colin Powell was referring to in January when he hypocritically attacked Cuba for so-called attempts to ‘destabilise parts of the region’ and ‘create discontent’. JUANJO RIVAS reports on the Cuban internationalist mission in Venezuela.

In 1999 the Chavez government approved one of the world’s most progressive constitutions that challenges the problems of a country exhausted by poverty, foreign intervention, illiteracy, infant mortality and corruption. Fine words on paper have been backed by concrete programmes, including:

• the nationalisation of basic resources;
• $1.5 million targeted on tackling illiteracy;
• the creation of cooperatives of small producers;
• widespread construction of affordable housing;
• a new subway and railway systems in seven cities;
• a modern medical centre for treatment of congenital heart diseases.

The new plan, called Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighbourhood), is intended to reach deprived areas where the reactionary Venezuelan Medical Federation (VMF) refuses to serve. Many VMF members used to bribe the authorities to avoid serving in rural areas – as they are obliged to do after graduating from the medical school – gravitating instead towards lucrative specialities like plastic surgery. Barrio Adentro was launched in spring 2003 in the Libertador municipality of Caracas, with the involvement of dozens of Cuban internationalists. By June there were 1,000 working in and around Caracas and by the end of 2003 the number operating in poor working class areas had doubled. This successful initiative will mean thousands of Cuban doctors offering a free health service from Carabobo to the mountainous northwest of Venezuela.

The vast majority of the Cuban doctors volunteering in Venezuela have served on at least one previous internationalist mission in the Caribbean, Africa or Latin America. They work in small clinics in the morning and, as part of a development of the the programme called Bloque Adentro (Inside the Block), make house-to-house visits in the afternoon to get first-hand experience of living conditions and health problems in a specific area, practising preventive medicine. They are offered accommodation and the community knows how to contact them at any time, including nights and weekends, free of charge.

The Venezuelan bourgeoisie is using big business dailies like El Universal, together with right-wing private TV stations, to wage a virulent campaign against the programme. The VMF has denounced Barrio Adentro, asking the courts to ban the foreign doctors from practising and arguing that rather than medical experts these are ‘Castro’s agents’ who aim to indoctrinate the poor, ‘proselytising’ to them with communist propaganda. They also claim that the Cubans are taking the jobs of about 8,000 national doctors who are jobless or underemployed. However, Health Minister Maria Urbaneja insists the Cubans were invited because the government couldn’t find enough Venezuelans willing to work in working-class neighbourhoods. The fact is that a visit to a private clinic costs up to $31, beyond the reach of the mass of the people whose earnings are close to the minimum wage of $125 per month.

The vast majority of the people are satisfied with the humanity, sensitivity and professionalism of the Cubans. Indeed, some middle-class people have switched to take advantage of the free clinics, while still attacking their government for providing them! This represents a split with the most entrenched and reactionary oligarchy that fears a boost of support for Chavez and has pressurised hospitals to turn away patients referred by the Cuban doctors. Last September, this led to the death of a child.

The Cuban doctors, who are mostly women, have faced anonymous death threats in response to their courageous and comradely commitment to save and improve the lives of their fellow Latin Americans. The success of the programme could bring paramilitary repression from privileged and deeply reactionary sectors, as happened to Cuban teachers and doctors volunteering in Nicaragua and Angola in the 1980s. But their revolutionary consciousness makes this a risk they are willing to face in this battle for life where the medicines are their only munitions.

Washington fears this international solidarity which continues to boost support for Cuba throughout Latin America and increase working-class support for the Bolivarian Revolution. To undermine this process they have tried without success to fund and train dissident mercenaries in Cuba, call for support for the criminal blockade (see previous issues) and expelled under false allegations 19 diplomats in the last 13 months from the Cuban Interest Section in Washington and the Mission to the United Nations.

The internal opposition in Venezuela is backed by the exiled oligarchy that has already attempted two coups against the government and is allied with the terrorist Cuban-American mafia of Miami. They are joined by the billionaire former president of Bolivia, overthrown by a popular uprising last October. These elements are developing a common agenda that fits with US imperialist plans for the subcontinent.

However, there are important lessons to be learned from the Cuba-Venezuela agreements:
• It is possible and necessary for underdeveloped countries to establish non-profit-based trade, for the exchange of goods, human capital and cooperative experiences that have a direct positive impact on the living standards of the dispossessed.
• Such exchanges will sharpen the contradictions between those who clamour for more profound and revolutionary changes and the alliance of the privileged and imperialists, leading to an open struggle between revolution and reaction.
• Cuba and Venezuela lead this process in Latin America through the creation of networks of resistance and solidarity, like the Bolivarian Congress of the Peoples (Caracas, November 2003) attended by 400 delegates from Latin American social movements, or the summit against the Free Trade Area of Americas (Havana, 26-29 January 2004). This strategy challenges debt and foreign aggression and encourages indigenous rights, sovereignty against imperialism, education, health care, instruments for participative democracy and so on. If this is the ‘discontent’ and ‘destabilisation in parts of the region’ that Colin Powell talked about, we welcome it.


Cuba’s internationalism speaks for itself

Cuba has responded eloquently and powerfully to recent speeches by Otto Reich, US ambassador to Latin America and Roger Noriega, US Under-Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs. Noriega accuses Cuba of ‘supporting elements in several countries that want to destabilise democratic governments’ and the people that Otto Reich accuses of being agents in Venezuela have turned out to be the Cuban doctors.

In an editorial in Granma International in early January, Cuba rhetorically asks: ‘Since when is to promote education and culture to destabilise a nation?’ The article goes on to point out some of the outstanding internationalist missions that Cuba has led:

• Sending thousands of doctors to collaborate with governments in giving care to the poorest and most needy in Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, Belize, Paraguay, and countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America: ‘15,000 Cuban doctors to 64 countries where millions of people are given medical care and tens of thousands of lives are saved.’
• Promoting highly effective literacy campaigns.
• Giving scholarships to study in Cuban universities to 12,000 young people from developing countries.
• ‘Thousands of sports instructors who are promoting the most wholesome activities which help to reduce crime, drug use and make millions of young people healthier.’
• ‘In 1970, after a terrible earthquake in Peru left more than 50,000 dead, the people of Cuba sent 100,000 blood donations, built hospitals and supplied medicines.’
• ‘When the Uruguayan people fell victim to a serious meningitis epidemic, Cuba, the only country making a suitable vaccine, sent millions of doses to protect the lives of Uruguayan children, even when their government did not want to purchase it precisely because it was Cuban.’
• ‘Cuban human and material resources were a decisive factor in eradicating the disease when El Salvador was in the grips of a serious dengue epidemic, even though its government was a bitter enemy of Cuba, a haven for terrorists and a centre of operations from which gross crimes against our people were launched.’
• Giving thousands of scholarships to young Venezuelans to study medicine, sports, social work and technical training.

The evidence speaks for itself.

Hannah Caller

FRFI 177 February / March 2004

 

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