Cuban doctors working in Venezuela since 2003 epitomize Cuba-Venezuelan mutual solidarity. Joined there by 20,000 other Cuban health workers, 11,000 doctors are caring for patients and teaching medical students.

Longstanding objections from Venezuela’s medical establishment are minor irritants in the face of recent violent assaults against Cuban health workers. They occur as part of anti-government protests that since early February have taken lives and damaged infrastructure.

Speaking recently on the 11th anniversary of Venezuela’s primary health care initiative Barrio Adentro, Vice President Jorge Arreaza reported that 162 Cuban health care personnel had been attacked. Two suffered serious burns. José Manzaneda, coordinator of Cuba Information TV, blames “a gigantic campaign against Cuba created in the private Venezuelan media, [and] amplified by the international media.” As a result, “[M]any people firmly believe either that the Cuban government makes big political decisions in Venezuela or that Cuban health workers are really agents or spies.”

A Spanish news service, for example, commenting on President Nicolas Maduro’s election victory in April 2013, cited the role of “around 46,000 Cuban collaborators who officially live in Venezuela, all with the mission of guaranteeing the Chavez revolution.” At the time, defeated opposition forces were engaged in destabilization, and the report served as context for attacks on 25 health centers staffed by Cuban doctors.

According to Ecuador’s El Comercio newspaper recently, “[M]ilitary personnel represented the darkest side of that contingent of professionals – teachers, doctors, engineers – involved in the social programs.” They are “like gods [in Venezuela]; no one can see them [in] army barracks, government ministries, intelligence offices, and petroleum agencies.” Quoted by the BBC, opposition leader María Corina Machado promised, “We are going to liberate Venezuela and liberate the Venezuelan army from the humiliating presence of Cuban functionaries and Cuban military personnel.”

The reality, of course, is otherwise. On March 12 in Caracas President Nicolas Maduro hosted 2,585 young people at the Presidential Palace. They had finished a six-year medical school course that focused on “comprehensive community medicine” at no personal cost and were now receiving medical diplomas. They will be providing free, accessible care for underserved Venezuelans in cities and rural areas throughout the country.

By 2013, over 14,000 such physicians were already on the job in clinics and hospitals. That year 20,000 students were working toward their own graduation. Projections are for 60,000 students to have graduated by 2019. Their program, entirely separate from traditional Venezuelan medical education, involves study and practical experience in the very communities where they live and will eventually serve. Crucially, their teachers are Cuban doctors.

Those doctors also care for patients and have engaged in half a billion patient encounters since 2003. Their presence accounts for doctors in Venezuela rising from 18 per 10,000 inhabitants in 1998 to 58 in 2012. Infant deaths fell from 20 per 1000 live births in 1999 to 13 in 2011.

The program of educating Venezuelan doctors to replace Cuban counterparts resulted from a bi-national agreement in 2005. Under the plan Cuban health care workers serving in Venezuela would receive their regular pay plus bonuses. In return, Venezuela guaranteed a predictable supply of oil for Cuba at reduced prices, at least 70,000 barrels per day.

The fact of Cuban doctors in Venezuela is no anomaly: since 1963, over 130,000 of them have provided health care in 108 countries. In early 2013, 17,000 Cuban doctors were working in 60 countries. Since then 6000 more have undertaken missions in Brazil.

Elsewhere in the world Cuban doctors don’t face charges of political interference backed up by physical attacks. And for doctors to be capable of spying while teaching tens of thousands and caring for millions more verges on the superhuman.

Journalist Manzaneda offers perspective on this situation. The Cuban doctors “contribute to the long term construction of systems of public health throughout the global South, health systems that by and large were abandoned or disregarded during decades of neo-liberalism and anti-state policies. That’s the basically ideological background for slander campaigns against Cuban solidarity work worldwide.”

Joining this battle of ideas, the U.S. government has long bedeviled Cuban doctors working abroad. The U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security introduced the U.S. Cuban Medical Professional Parole program in 2006. That program offers incentives for Cuban health workers on international missions to defect and move to the United States. The object, presumably, is to undermine a medical outreach program appreciated throughout the world.

Photo: The Venezuelan government gave a medal to two Cuban doctors who were almost burnt alive during an opposition attack on a medical center (Cuba Informacion).



W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.