Oil for Sport in Venezuela

Thousands of Cuban sports trainers and doctors have been working in Venezuela for two years, in exchange for cheap oil deliveries from Venezuela to the communist island. The sports trainers keep the elderly fit and the young ones away from drugs.

Ulysses Hernandez is clearly the leader of the pack. You cannot miss the sharp tone of his whistle. “Ladies! Can I have your attention for a minute! When I say so, we will all count our pulse for five seconds, just as we do at the beginning of each training session! Everybody ready?”

A Cuban sports trainer working with residents of 23 de enero.
Credit: Ronald de Hommel

Of course everybody is ready, that means the roughly thirty elderly women and four elderly men who congregate three times a week on a small square in 23 de enero, a neighborhood in Western Caracas. The elderly people come together in order to stay fit under the supervision of their sports trainer Ulysses Hernandez. The interesting aspect about it: Hernandez comes from Cuba, as part of the Mision Barrio Adentro, an agreement between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Cuban colleague Fidel Castro. Through this program, more than 21.000 Cuban doctors and roughly 5.000 Cuban sports trainers have come to Venezuela. Whereas the doctors usually stay on a contract for two years and earn about 200 dollars monthly, the sports trainers come for one and a half years. They live in the barrios and neighborhoods where they work, in between the people they take care of. President Chávez has announced that he wants to increase the number of Cuban doctors and sports trainers to 30.000 until the end of the year. In the meantime, thousands of Venezuelans are being educated to take over the positions of the Cubans in a few years from now. In exchange for the sports trainers and the doctors, Cuba receives preferential oil deliveries from Venezuela. 

Defending the Cuban sports trainers

Although the Venezuelan opposition hates the Cubans, the inhabitants of the Venezuelan barrios and poorer neighborhoods love them. This also goes for Andrea Vallona, a 58 year old woman who has been sent to the sports classes by her doctor. “I had problems with my back, but since I am participating in the exercises, I am feeling much better. I am coming here three times per week.” So, that means, she is satisfied with the arrival of the Cubans? “Of course! Whenever somebody says something negative about them, I defend them. They are good for us. Before the Cubans came, nobody cared about is.”

Andrea Vallona is one of the roughly 700.000 inhabitants of the neighborhood 23 de enero in Western Caracas. The inhabitants live in 97 so-called superbloques, huge buildings which indeed look like huge building blocks, each containing 300 or 450 families. In the fifties, when the buildings were constructed, they were a sign of progress and modernity. Since then, the former green zones in between the buildings have been filled in with barrios, poor neighborhoods with small houses, constructed by the poor from all over Venezuela who came to Caracas for a better future. Nowadays the inhabitants of 23 de enero are fighting against deterioration and drug problems. Many elderly people suffer from loneliness and health problems, because they do not exercise enough. Some of these problems have been dealt with for the past two years through the community healthcare program Mission Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood).

Sport means health

According to Luis Alberto Aponte, Director of the CAC, the communal activity center in 23 de enero, both the Cuban sports teachers and the doctors are responsible for the health care in the neighborhood. “In this neighborhood, we have got 53 Cuban doctors, and 46 sports trainers. For us, sport means the same as health. That is why so many sports trainers are participating in the Mission Barrio Adentro. Sometimes doctors direct their patients to the sports trainers, because for instance the blood circulation of their patients needs improvement. Participating in the sports activities can also work in a preventive way. The sports activities are especially important for the elderly people in the neighborhood. By now, we have about 40 of them participating on average. They are really interested in coming.”

Apart from exercising three times a week, the Cuban sports trainers also organize talking sessions for the elderly, in order to get them out of their isolation. They also go on short trips with them, for example to the beach. Such trips are being sponsored by the Ministry of Health, or financially supported through the different cultural and social foundations in the neighborhood. The Cuban sports trainers also organize sports tournaments for the kids in the neighborhood. “We do this in order to keep them away from drugs. Unfortunately, this is a threat which always looms around the corner.”

According to Aponte, there were no problems at all concerning the acceptance of the Cuban sports trainers: “They were accepted immediately. Before they came, nobody cared about the health of the inhabitants of this neighborhood. There were no doctors or sports trainers. So, nobody lost his job, as some supporters of the opposition sometimes say.”


In the meantime, the elderly people on the square behind the somber buildings in 23 de enero, have counted their pulse. Sports trainer Hernandez writes down the pulse of all his participants in a notebook. At the end of the training, after a second pulse count, he can check the difference in the pulses of his participants.

Hernandez is one of the four Cuban sports trainers in this part of 23 de enero. Hernandez, dressed in a black shirt and red sports suit, comes from Guisa, a small city in the east of Cuba. “I have been here for three months now and I like the life here. I have got a contract for one and a half year.” Hernadez` family is still in Cuba. According to him, the health situation of the elderly people in his neighborhood has improved considerably over the last years. He doesn’t tell much more, since the Cuban sports trainers and doctors officially are not allowed to talk to the press, according to the Venezuelan Ministry of Information because, “in the past the opposition media have politically changed statements made by the Cubans.”

A Cuban sports trainer working with residents of 23 de enero.
Credit: Ronald de Hommel

Spontaneous pole dance

Anyway, Hernandez did not come this morning to talk, he came to keep his group fit. He is doing his job with commitment. At half past eight in the morning the 60-year-old ladies make hip turns, swing around sticks in the air and run circles in opposite directions. At ten to nine, they laugh loudly, when they pass on a basketball backwards in two rows. The highlight comes however at half past nine, when Hernandez turns up the volume of his hi-fi set. The ladies start to dance to his techno music, while Hernandez himself seems to be the one having the most fun of them all. His performance is however topped by Felicitas Jeronez, a 70-year old lady who spontaneously starts a pole dance. “These sports mornings are great”, she tells me minutes later, while she is still panting from the action. “Since we can do our exercises here, we feel much better. We are fitter, we communicate to each other and we have become friends.”