The day she gave birth in Colombia, Ana Madriz, a 21-year-old Venezuelan woman, felt that this country may have saved her life.
Holding her newly-born daughter in her arms, she met me a few days later, eyes shining, on the patio of her house in Cúcuta, Colombia. Her magical smile hid what her eyes could not hide: the suffering caused by having to leave her old life behind because she was afraid to stay and not live to tell the tale.
Ana is part of a silent but revealing phenomenon in the Venezuelan diaspora: an exodus of thousands of pregnant women, fleeing from hospital facilities that have no equipment.
Instead of enjoying their daily bread, women in Venezuela face the daily drama of maternal mortality.
The Venezuelan government has not published public health data for years. However, at the start of 2017, the authorities accidentally published a health bulletin that listed maternal mortality figures and other data. Although it was immediately taken down from the health ministry’s webpage in response to the scandal caused by the figures, the truth was out.
Between 2015 and 2016, maternal mortality increased by 65% in Venezuela, wiping out recent advances and returning to the situation that prevailed 25 years ago. The causes include the lack of medicines such as anticoagulants, scar healing cream, painkillers, antibiotics, antiseptics; the lack of basic medical tools and equipment, such as scalpels, needles and gloves; and the ever falling number of medical personnel willing to work with no equipment and without pay.
Ana remembers every detail of the terror involved in crossing the river that separates both countries in the middle of the night, while the armed men who control the route pointed AK-47s at her.
When I arrived in Colombia with an Amnesty International team to investigate the reasons why millions of people were leaving Venezuela, I interviewed dozens of pregnant women who filled the corridors of hospitals in the border towns. Most of them fled Venezuela for fear of losing their babies or even their own lives while giving birth in their own country.
In Ana’s case, she decided to leave for Colombia in 2015, along with her partner and her recently born and only child, in search of a better life.
They crossed the border at one of the more than 250 irregular crossing points or “trochas” between Colombia and Venezuela. Ana remembers every detail of the terror involved in crossing the river that separates both countries in the middle of the night, while the armed men who control the route pointed AK-47s at her. She took her son in her arms, stepped into the water and, looking straight ahead, crossed the river.
She became pregnant one year after arriving in Colombia. Although she had been making regular visits to Venezuela, she now decided not to go back. One of her best friends had died a short while before giving birth in a Venezuelan hospital. Bad medical practice and a lack of antibiotics and anticoagulants caused her death.
The fear of dying while giving birth in Venezuela made Ana and her partner decide to settle down for good in Colombia, despite the problems they face as undocumented immigrants in Cúcuta. This border town has the highest rate of irregular employment and one of the highest unemployment rates in Colombia. It also hosts hundreds of Venezuelans, who often live on the street and who often have to face the aggressive xenophobia of the few, while enjoying the silent solidarity of the many.
Between 2015 and 2016, maternal mortality increased by 65% in Venezuela, wiping out recent advances and returning to the situation that prevailed 25 years ago.
Ana, who knew that Colombian law only guarantees emergency services to foreigners, went to the Erasmo Meoz Hospital in Cúcuta almost at the point of giving birth, in November 2017. Although there was only limited medical attention at the birth, Ana described the event in glowing terms. And I am not surprised. If I saw anything in Colombia, it was medical personnel who were conscientious and willing to do everything possible to ease the pain of their neighbours.
The Erasmo Meoz Hospital has treated more Venezuelan patients than any other over the last year. A third of medical appointments were births. The hospital dealt with a total of 2,100 births by Venezuelan patients in 2017 alone. This amounts to six births every day and represents a three-fold increase over the previous year at this hospital.
Although the exodus of pregnant Venezuelan women is clearly visible in the corridors of Erasmo Meoz Hospital, the same phenomenon can be seen throughout Colombia, for example, at the San José Hospital in Maicao and the Niño Jesús Hospital in Barranquilla, which treated a record number of pregnant Venezuelan women last year.
To leave Venezuela on an emergency basis to give birth in Colombia is one more reflection of the serious, terminal and irresponsible deterioration of the Venezuelan health service.
Although no figures are available for Venezuela, because the government hides them, the Colombian figures do not lie and are rather frightening. According to official figures, the number of Venezuelans that had medical appointments in Colombia rose from 1,475 in 2015 to 24,720 in 2017 – a fifteen-fold increase over two years.
However, President Nicolás Maduro continues to deny that Venezuela’s health service is in crisis and that the progress made with regard to certain rights has evaporated.
At the end of our conversation, Ana told me that Venezuela must be able to guarantee the rights of her children to food, health and education.
I would add that Venezuela must guarantee women’s rights, specifically those related to access to comprehensive health services and sexual and reproductive health services.