Venezuela: Health Crisis Smashing People Health



Nowadays, Venezuela is a powder keg. A major objective of the Chavez government following the Bolivarian Revolution was improving health care for the Venezuelan people, and they built thousands of new clinics, hospitals, and diagnostic centers across the country. Mission Barrio Adentro is only one health program among many such as “Mission Milagro”, “Mission Gregorio Hernandes” or “Mission Sonrisa”. But now, the risk is great that all this progress will vanish and poor people will suffer more than anyone else.


Anyone looking back on Venezuela a decade ago would be shocked by what is going on in the country today. The political left in Latin America that admired Venezuela’s ambitious socialist project and hailed Venezuela’s socialism as an appealing alternative to market-based approaches. But today, nothing to save remains, the country is facing an unprecedented meltdown.

The economy has collapsed. Between 2015 and 2016 the GDP is projected to contract 18% and the inflation is forecast to reach 700%. In the whole country, energy shortages leave cities and villages in darkness for hours every day and the health system is barely functioning due to shortages of basic equipment.

The origin of that situation is the collapse of oil prices, Venezuela’s only significant export, and because of this the Government revenues could fall by 40% this year.

The Venezuelan Constitution defines health as a fundamental social right and  guarantees a free national universal health care system. As such, the whole healthcare system was reformed and the Misìon Barrio Adentro was implemented. This plan is a model of comprehensive health management including development of surgeries and clinics in communities with little access to conventional health system structures such as large hospitals. In addition to this phase, the Barrio Adentro Mission comprised three stages: Mission Barrio Adentro II, which provided free comprehensive service through the Centers for Advanced Technology (CAT), Integral Diagnostic Centers (CDI) and Integral Rehabilitation Rooms (SRI); Mission Barrio Adentro III, which consisted of technological modernization and improvement of the infrastructure of the country’s hospital network; and Mission Barrio Adentro IV, which comprised the construction of 16 new highly specialized hospitals. Additionally, the program brought Cuban doctors into the country in order to provide, even in remote rural areas, free basic medical care.

But now, what remains of the program? Nothing more than a barren propaganda and empty words.

In the country’s public hospitals, where treatment should be free, medicine, equipment and even food are increasingly not available.  Antibiotics, power electricity and even soap and gloves lack. A shortage of radioactive materials is also threatening medical services such as cancer treatments and diagnoses that are almost at a halt. Furthermore, patients in several cases have to buy what is needed for their treatment privately, thus ensuring a thriving black market and a rise of Out of Pocket Payments (OPPs).  Every day, doctors have to fight trying keeping patients alive and it is indicative that the death rate among babies under a month old in public hospitals, run by the Health Ministry, increased to just over 2% in 2015, up from 0.02% in 2012. Additionally, the death rate among new mothers in the same hospitals increased by about five times.

The last May Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a bill to declare a national humanitarian health crisis that would force the ruling government of President Nicolas Maduro to accept foreign medicinal aid. In particular, the law will permit the declaration of an emergency, which allows Venezuela to receive medications as a form of aid from other countries, specifically in Latin America and Europe. Additionally, Venezuela would also be allowed to request assistance from the World Health Organization.

Unfortunately, the health crisis continues. The president of the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, Freddy Ceballos, revealed that drug shortages rise to over 85% in the country at the end of the last May.  Public marches have been organized in the country, with doctors asking for medical equipment and the problem is still urgent.

The Government is signing agreements to assuage public opinion. The last June, an agreement was signed to protect private health center users and insurance companies, which establishes the need to conduct frequent inspections in order to check for possible abuses and the correct functioning of the system.

But all the measures taken are just a bait and switch. In fact, as the medical crisis worsens, the Venezuelan government continues to deny attempts to introduce humanitarian aid into the country. Specifically, it has denied several attempts by NGOs and opposition groups to bring humanitarian aid into the country, opting instead to import medicine from political allies such as the Chinese government. In June the Maduro administration apparently blocked several requests to import free medicine into the dangerously crisis-ravaged state. The Government explained that the foreign medical aid cannot be delivered into the country due to a lack of proper import permits, but doubts remain.

The last week the Government reported that has distributed 18.7 million drugs and has signed a cooperation agreement with Cuba to import a not detailed amount of medicine. However, the President of the Venezuelan Medical Federation disputed that import “is only for the benefit of those who marketed health, is to say Cubans”, indicating that some medicines are actually produced in India and their quality “is not proven.” Although the Government installed a hotline to improve drug distribution in February, Maduro is recognizing that this service is “infiltrated” by a “mafia” that is reselling imported drugs overpricing them. Furthermore, the health minister, Luisana Melo, said that the “efforts” are made to cease with drug shortages through automated drug distribution system. But, if these measures will work, it is to be seen.

This is not all. More than 100,000 Venezuelans crossed into Colombia over the weekend to hunt for food and medicine that are in short supply at home. It was the second weekend in a row that Venezuela’s socialist government opened the long-closed border with Colombia.

The situation is dramatic and every day it is getting worse. Possibly, Maduro is trying to mask the country’s stark state of affairs, but how long can he continue to do this? How many people would have to die before the Venezuelan government will take broad countermeasures?



Image credits: A protest last month in Caracas, Venezuela, over the country’s hospital crisis. Meridith Kohut for The New York Times.

pietro_ghngn Pietro Dionisio is graduated in “International Relations” at Florence University.  Since his master degree he has been involved in global health issues about which writes articles and opinions. You can find more of his work here.

Leave a comment