Venezuela: Women and the Health of a People

The author examines how in little over ten years the Bolivarian Revolution has not only attended to the population sectors that didn’t have medical services in their communities, but now these sectors are also generating their own doctors.


Last December, a young man announces to me that he was going to graduate and he asked me to be his godfather. This makes one feel honoured; but when he says that he was going to graduate as an integral community doctor[i] it’s even more exciting to know that little over ten years ago the rule of health in this country for citizens of the popular sectors (i.e. disadvantaged socio-economic sectors) was “pay or die”.

I found out that my godson, who was graduating in the second round of integral community doctors, is one among the six thousand that the Bolivarian University of Venezuela is graduating. More precisely, my godson is one of fifteen graduates from the Coche Nucleus, a great popular sector of Caracas. And thanks to the now doctor Lenin Aponcio (the godson) one learns more and more; like for example that this second round of six thousand precedes the first of eight thousand doctors.

And finally the great moment of the graduation ceremony arrives…with a surprise! They call the names of the graduates one by one to receive their diplomas. They are, for example, Merys, Rubina, Elvis, María Luisa, Daisy, Maryuri, Yeltza, Jenni, Vivean, Karina, Loimar y Francisca. And that’s it. My godson Lenin, in his graduation group, is the only male and fourteen of the fifteen are women. Fourteen female doctors.

Women, life, politics

Women in Venezuela are the launching pad of the Revolution. We all knew this; in the mayoralties 63% are female mayors, in the communal councils 70% are female spokespersons…and in over 12 years the Bolivarian revolution  has had 38 female ministers (there were 27 over the 40 previous years – many of us know this but it’s worth repeating for those who could have doubts).

And now these astonishing Venezuelan women also step up to the front line of combat for the health of their people.

The graduation ceremony is a serious occasion, but it also offers something less serious, which is partying together. That is where human bonds are tightened. It’s the opportunity to chat with the godfather of the graduating group, Dr. Armando Graterol, who is also the sub-director of Coche Hospital, where the newly graduated undertook their internships and hospital night-shifts.

Evidence of a transformation in the provision of healthcare in Venezuela

The occasion is the opportunity to find out much more about health in the popular sectors. Popular sectors, as in their essence of “people”, and not in the qualitatively derogatory sense the phrase is used  by a certain elite to look down upon the least favoured or dispossessed. And thus the first social evidence appears: currently, the Bolivarian University offers the popular sectors the possibility of graduating themselves as doctors.

The second piece of evidence is the contemporary history of healthcare in Venezuela.

1998: In the large urban barrios and rural zones, the population has little access to healthcare. Apart from some deficient (public) hospitals, healthcare is commercialised to the benefit of private clinics, laboratories, and booming pharmaceutical and medical insurance sectors. Healthcare is negotiated with credit cards and insurance.

2000: The Bolivarian revolution initiates its first great mission (social program), the Bolivar Project 2000, to provide urgent medical assistance to those most in need. It includes military surgical units that move around the country to attend to thousands and thousands who for years waited for the inaccessible operations that they needed. Simply, it’s a civic – military program for the health of the people.

2003: The Bolivarian government with the help of the Cuban Republic launches the giant operation Barrio Adentro level 1 (primary care clinics), incorporating 20,000 Cuban doctors who offer primary medical attention to the people in their communities. The program is totally free, even the medication.

2005: The Barrio Adentro 1 program was broadened to Barrio Adentro 2, together with the CDI (Comprehensive Diagnostic Centres, which are clinics equipped with the latest technology and SRI – Comprehensive Rehabilitation Clinics). Barrio Adentro 3 follows, to improve hospital infrastructure.

To all of this, various other programs are added. Among them, Mission Miracle, a broad program of cataract operations for patients who before were condemned to irremediable blindness. This is also achieved thanks to Cuba and a true air-bridge between Caracas and Havana.

An immense hospital is also built, the Child Cardiology Hospital, which not only attends to little Venezuelans but also children from other nations.

Barrio Adentro, CDI, SRI, Mission Miracle, Child Cardiology, are all totally free services, incidentally.

“Objective” journalism

Programs of such magnitude of course deserved media coverage. The mass private Venezuelan media and their international colleagues would entrust themselves with this…but in their own way.

In the news they said that the Cuban doctors were dangerous special agents infiltrating Venezuela. Also, among thousands and thousands of surgical interventions they looked for the one isolated medical error or the patient for whom the treatment didn’t work…it didn’t matter why, or how, only media manipulation and the aim of creating a web of false opinion mattered.

As the people were less naive than these journalists imagined, their media campaign didn’t work and the sick – who at last had doctors in their communities – of course turned up in great numbers. The population discovered what quality, humane and free healthcare is.

This is what will happen now, in exactly the same way, with the young integral community doctors who are no longer “infiltrating Cuban agents” but instead are graduated Venezuelan doctors. The media strategy that desperately tries to question their abilities won’t work.

The moment to analyse and sum up this contemporary history of health in times of revolution has arrived.

1999: Medical care for the underprivileged population is almost non-existent.

2000 to 2012: Massive programs are fulfilled to attend to the primary healthcare of the population nationally.

2012: The first two rounds of Integral Community Medicine graduate: the first in August with 8,000 and the second with 6,000 more, which adds up to 14,000 young doctors.

Today and the future

It’s easy to extrapolate. A simple tentative evaluation allows estimating in an arbitrary way that in the popular sectors a citizen has in their personal environment around 100 people between family, friends and relatives.

Therefore the 14,000 young doctors are accessible in their communities to more or less 1,400,000 citizens. Meanwhile, in the Bolivarian University the students who will make up future graduate groups are being trained.

The conclusion is clear. In little over ten years the Bolivarian Revolution has not only attended to the popular sectors that didn’t have medical services in their communities, but now these sectors are generating their own doctors.

The mass media outlets in Western countries can surprise their audiences in good faith, projecting President Chavez as a “tyrant, dictator and populist of a Venezuela that is Cuban-ising”, but millions of citizens,who expressed themselves in their good faith at the polls to reelect their president for a third term, don’t believe this story.

Meanwhile in the streets of various European capitals thousands of demonstrators protest for their rights to health, rights previously gained that are worsening…

Jean Araud is a French social communicator domiciled in Venezuela. Translated by Ewan Robertson for Venezuelanalysis.com

[i] Translator note: Integral Community Medicine is a government medical program whereby the Cuban doctors who work in the Barrio Adentro health program also train Venezuelans to become doctors. Eventually, enough Venezuelans will be trained to be able to replace the Cuban doctors, establishing a completely new medical system in Venezuela. The six to seven year program is free and students are supported with a small monthly bursary. As a result, thousands of Venezuelans from poorer backgrounds who were previously unable to enter the country’s elite (and expensive) medical schools are now training to become doctors. In general graduates practice medicine in their communities after graduating and as thus deepen the provision of free healthcare throughout Venezuela.