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Opinion and Analysis: Social Programs

Alternative to Health Insurance: Cuban Doctors in Venezuela

In February of this year, my friend Amelia and I visited a number of Barrio Adentro clinics in Venezuela, where we determined to partake of free health care despite the fact that there was nothing detectably wrong with us. Established during the mandate of Hugo Chávez Frías, the clinics were made possible by excesses in such natural resources as Venezuelan oil and Cuban doctors.

Following the Bolivarian victory in the referendum of February 15, which safeguarded the ideal of universal health care by authorizing public officeholders to run for indefinite reelection, Amelia and I traveled from the Venezuelan mainland to Isla Margarita for the post-referendum "semana del amor" that Chávez had explained would compensate for the effective annulment of Valentine's Day 2009 in Venezuela. The holiday had been annulled not because of its capitalist nature but because it had preceded the referendum by one day and coincided with a nationwide ban on alcohol sales; opponents of Chávez that Amelia and I spoke with meanwhile explained the week of love as simply a result of psychological instability on the part of the president.

As the Barrio Adentro program was not required to observe the semana del amor, Amelia and I were able to continue our medical endeavors at a clinic located near the sea. A female doctor from Guantánamo province in Cuba listed other instances of magnanimity among regional socialist leaders aside from invented holidays, such as not denying free health care to US citizens (me), US residents (Amelia), or members of the Venezuelan opposition, and not presiding over military detention centers located in foreign nations with which diplomatic relations were not shared.

The lack of mutual medicine embargos was highlighted when the doctor provided us with a free sheet of mind-altering allergy pills and free ultrasounds on different parts of our bodies; we later took advantage of the arrival of a Lebanese-Palestinian friend to have him hooked up to an assortment of uncomfortable machinery, prompting him to ask whether he was in an Israeli prison or on vacation.

The Cuban doctor on Isla Margarita had just signed a 10 year contract in Venezuela, having already served in Afghanistan and a smattering of African countries. An attempt to export the revolution to Louisiana in 2005 had been thwarted by George W. Bush, who decided that Hurricane Katrina victims could stand to be more discriminating in their choices of aid donors than the US government could be in its choices of oil trading partners. The doctor asserted that the fundamental difference between Cubans and Americans was that Cubans fought in conflict zones, as well, but "con bata blanca"-i.e. in the attire of medical professionals.

Amelia and I brought up prevailing notions in other parts of the globe, such as the US embassy in Bolivia, that bata blanca was simply another form of camouflage. A member of the embassy staff had attempted to research this hypothesis by encouraging an American Peace Corps volunteer to spy on area Cubans and Venezuelans, research which ended in 2008 when Evo Morales expelled the US ambassador from La Paz. The Cuban doctor informed Amelia and me that repeated requests for unnecessary ultrasounds might also be construed as a form of camouflage but that universal health care did not exclude CIA affiliates, an allegation supported by the fact that Cuban doctors in Bolivia had in 2007 performed cataract surgery on the man who killed Che Guevara.

Belén Fernández is traveling in Latin America with Amelia Opalinska. She is a regular contributor to