Petty politics - the cause of crushing poverty in oil rich Venezuela

By Josefina Salomón, News Writer at Amnesty International @josefinasalomon

The doctor opened the door of the emergency room with a wide, albeit nervous, smile.

She was welcoming us to her world, where miracles are meant to happen. But as we walked deep into the corridors of Hospital JM de los Rios in Caracas, the largest pediatric hospital in Venezuela, her smile faded and tears began running down her face.

“What do we need? Absolutely everything,” she said.

What do we need? Absolutely everything
Doctor at Venezuela's main pediatric hospital

Hospitals are hardly joyful places, but this was a snapshot of hell.

As the doctor read out a seemingly endless list of medicines and supplies that the hospital has been lacking since Venezuela fell deep into an unprecedented economic crisis, half a dozen doctors rushed to help a woman who had just walked in carrying a six-year-old boy with a gunshot wound to his head. The latest victim of violence in one of the countries with the highest murder rate on earth.

Before the crisis, the doctors would have taken an X-ray of the boy’s head, provided immediate medical treatment, and prepared an operating room for an emergency procedure.

Hospitals in Venezuela are lacking essential supplies ©Amnesty International/Josefina Salomon

But these are not normal times.

Since the price of the “black-gold” plummeted three years ago, oil-dependent Venezuela has been in economic freefall. The country is now unable to import basic food items and medicines, and it doesn’t have the raw materials to produce them domestically. In recent months, the situation has deteriorated to a point where the country is lacking 80% of the food and medicines it needs, according to Datanalisis, a local polling firm.

The boy is now suffering the effects of this deepening crisis. While three doctors assess his condition, another runs to the phone and reads out a list of medicines to the woman working in the now-decimated pharmacy. The doctor knows she will not get her first choice of medicine, but at this point something is better than nothing. Another doctor struggles to get access to the only operating room that still works, but even here the air conditioning is down and the cramped room feels more like a sauna than a sterile environment.

“When I operate, I have to have someone constantly drying my forehead and face to prevent the sweat from dripping on the patient. Performing surgery in these conditions is the same as doing it in the middle of the road,” one surgeon told me.

When I operate, I have to have someone constantly drying my forehead and face to prevent the sweat from dripping on the patient. Performing surgery in these conditions is the same as doing it in the middle of the road.
Surgeon at Venezuela's main pediatric hospital.

If the boy is lucky enough to survive the operation, he will spend the next few days recovering in one of the tiny rooms that are now barely habitable. His mother will have to fetch everything from sheets, to medicines and food for him. Government-imposed quotas on shopping means she will have to stand in a long queue on the only day she is allowed to buy essential products. Even then, it is likely that she will not find many of them in stock.

Doctors struggle to work in substandard conditions ©Amnesty International/Josefina Salomon

Getting sick in Venezuela is now fraught with risk.

People are resorting to cutting their medical treatments short, to make their medicines last longer.

“I have a heart condition but the medicine is very difficult to find so I have decided to half the doses. I know it’s not ideal but I have no choice,” said one doctor as we walked around the hospital.

But how has Venezuela, with its vast and lucrative oil reserves, come to this?

Trying to find the answer to this question is not easy – nor it is saying anything about Venezuela.

I have a heart condition but the medicine is very difficult to find so I have decided to half the doses. I know it’s not ideal but I have no choice
Doctor at Venezuela's main pediatric hospital

No matter what you say, someone will accuse you of supporting or being financed by one side of the political spectrum, or the other.

If you criticize the undeniable humanitarian crisis the country is facing, or if you question why the government did not invest the fruits of years of oil prosperity in an infrastructure that might have made Venezuela better able to provide for its people in leaner times, you will be accused of siding with the “imperialists”.

If you praise the many social policies promoted in recent decades since Hugo Chávez came into power to lift millions of Venezuelans out of poverty, someone will point a finger at you saying you are not seeing the many human rights violations and undue restrictions imposed in the country.

Over the past decade, Venezuela has turned into a severe polarized country. The “you are with us or against us” rhetoric that has caused so much damage across the Americas has found a new, tragic meaning here. It is preventing the country from crawling out of this nightmare.

The administration of Nicolás Maduro, stubbornly refuses to admit the country is in crisis and outright rejects any suggestion that international aid might be needed.

But those at the forefront of this tragedy have another story to tell.

Hospitals in Venezuela are in crisis ©Amnesty International/Josefina Salomon

One of the country’s top doctors recently said that the number of maternal deaths in the first months of 2016 doubled in comparison to 2015. Teachers complain children are sent to school with nothing but a mango to eat.

Venezuela is at a clear crossroads. Authorities have argued that they are fighting strong political forces that are trying to destroy the socialist dream of equality that so many have fought hard to achieve.

The problem is that along the way, they seem to be forgetting the millions being left behind.

The projects and strategies they have put in place in a desperate bid to mitigate this crisis – including the regulation of the prices and availability of food and medicines and the distribution of food aid through informal organizations – is hardly making any difference. Time and time again, people have complained these measures are simply not enough.

Whatever your political view, one thing is undeniable: petty politics are rotting away the core of this beautiful country. They are putting the lives of its people at risk, hampering the right to health and sentencing a generation of young children, who are not being fed enough to make the most of their education, to the worst possible future.

Whatever your political view, one thing is undeniable: petty politics are rotting away the core of this beautiful country.
Josefina Salomon, Amnesty International.

Venezuela is the perfect example of what happens when politics are given priority over people. When politicians, whatever their ideas, are so far removed from reality they might as well be sitting in another planet.

I wonder how much longer politicians will go before leaving their selfish interests at the door and putting their people first.

Because time is running out, fast.