US Sanctions Are Bad for Your Health!

Amidst a backdrop of cruel US sanctions, Venezuelan doctors and researchers have produced major breakthroughs in the healthcare sector.
US sanctions have severely affected healthcare in Venezuela. (Venezuelanalysis)

In my previous column I talked about the challenges and breakthroughs for Venezuelan scientific and technological innovation amidst a US economic blockade, particularly when it comes to healthcare.

In a 2019 report, Washington DC-based think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) estimated that more than 300,000 chronic patients were at risk due to the country’s struggles in securing HIV, hypertension and diabetes medicines. And in 2019 the worst sanctions were still to come…

If the situation was bleak for chronic patients, it was even worse for those suffering from rare diseases that require specialized treatments.

Some situations fill us with anger and outrage, like the closure of the CITGO program that financed Venezuelan children getting treatment abroad for leukemia and other serious conditions. That was shut down once the oil subsidiary fell into the hands of the opposition.

Sanctions are sometimes talked about as some abstract phenomenon. I feel there is some effort missing to explain how a document published by the Treasury Department in Washington can affect the health of a grandfather or grandmother in a Venezuelan barrio.

Dishonest politicians and journalists take advantage to claim that “sanctions only affect those in power.” But in my conversations with healthcare officials I’ve gotten to know some very concrete examples.

Right now, authorities have complained to the Panamerican Health Organization (PAHO) that unilateral coercive measures do not allow Venezuela to purchase medicines and nutritional supplements for babies that suffer from inborn metabolism errors (IME), a genetical condition that affects the normal behavior of cells, organs and systems. The medicines are only produced in Denmark and the suppliers refuse to trade with our country.

Similarly, Venezuela has made public that it cannot currently operate its 19 linear accelerators. These are sophisticated machines used for radiotherapy for cancer patients, manufactured by the likes of Siemens, Electra, etc. Since the countries where they’re headquartered maintain sanctions against Venezuela, these multinational corporations are no longer selling equipment to Venezuelan institutions, and they also refuse to supply spare parts or technical assistance, putting more than 90 percent of radiotherapy patients at risk.

In certain cases, multilateral organizations such as PAHO try to intermediate by opening auctions as an attempt to provide more “security” for international partners. But even those get no traction. Nobody, or almost nobody, dares come close to Venezuela, lest they get targeted for violating US sanctions with prison sentences that can go up to 20 years or millionaire fines that corporations just do not want to risk.

US spokespeople, when confronted about the impact of coercive measures on the human rights of the civilian population, always shield themselves in the “humanitarian exemptions” discourse. Nevertheless, even Venezuelan NGOs that are certainly not aligned with the government have said that these exceptions are close to useless given the “overcompliance” around sanctions.

Unilateral coercive measures are an overbearing and cruel part of our reality. For some spokespeople and officials there seems to be a certain “comfort” in just denouncing them before an international community that is not going to do anything about it.

In my view, it is much more interesting to highlight the effort to fight back against the blockade from many different fronts. And there are several inspiring cases in medical research.

A few weeks ago I spoke with the obstetrician and perinatologist Carlos Bermudez, who has developed a novel technique to perform surgery to correct spina bifida and myelomeningocele in fetuses in a less invasive way.

This procedure minimizes the risk of premature birth associated with this fetal surgery and guarantees a better quality of life for children with this condition. It has been an extraordinary advance in the current conditions for research in Venezuela. The surgery has been implemented in different public hospitals since the end of 2022.

These Venezuelan physicians are also pioneers in percutaneous sclerotherapy because, until recently, for neonatal pulmonary pathologies, developed countries applied open surgeries with great risk and very poor results. 

In contrast, Venezuela developed an outpatient technique with a cost of $1 to $2, that is to say, the value of a polidocanol vial and an injector. Today this technique has become widespread and is used all over the world.

Regenerative medicine is another area with promising results. Researchers working with stem cells have demonstrated advances in bone regeneration in children with congenital diseases. New treatments have also emerged for dermatological and ophthalmological issues.

Beyond the efforts from our doctors and researchers, we’ve also had help from allied nations. An alliance with Russia has provided free treatment for thousands of diabetic patients. Furthermore, the government has announced an insulin factory built with Russian technology, to be inaugurated in the near future.

In what concerns cancer patients, there has been joint work with Iran, another country very familiar with the tough reality of coercive measures. These efforts include technical assistance training specialized personnel, since most of the equipment will be completely new for Venezuelan healthcare workers.

As I go back over the column, many different emotions swirl through my mind. It’s incredibly outrageous to see the US-backed candidate promise the very people who are strangling us today (one patient at a time) that Venezuela will go back to being “a reliable partner.”

At the end of the day, I can’t blame anyone for not being an optimist today. But the love for Venezuela and the desire to fight are very much alive. And so, the struggle continues!

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.