Venezuelan Doctors Step Up Protests against Government

A dispute supported by the Venezuelan Medical Federation (FMV), erupted within Venezuela's public hospital system this week with doctors demanding salary increases and improved working conditions.
(El Universal)

Caracas, September 21, 2007 ( – A dispute supported by the Venezuelan Medical Federation (FMV), erupted within Venezuela's public hospital system this week with doctors demanding salary increases and improved working conditions. The dispute, which began at Hospital Lídice in Caracas, has spread to Pérez Carreño Hospital, Hospital Vargas, the Maternity Hospital of Catia, Hospital J.M. de los Ríos and the Magallanes Hospital in Catia, after an incident on Monday in which a doctor tackled and removed the firearm of an armed security guard who was attempting to prevent reporters from the private TV channel Globovision from entering a hospital ward to film a doctor's assembly.

Daniel Sánchez, president of the Medical Society of Vargas Hospital where doctors convoked an assembly yesterday "in solidarity" with their colleagues in Lídice, said he supported the decision to broaden the dispute, arguing the need to improve salaries and working conditions are "not an isolated problem of Lídice, for this reason we are going to broaden the situation of conflict. This does not mean we are going to leave our places of work. Rather, we are going to take action in the streets and convoke assemblies to inform people about the situation."

Douglas León Natera, president of the Medical Federation FMV, said that a program of activities would continue for approximately 45 days, during which doctors would hold permanent meetings in hospitals and medical colleges throughout the country.

However, members of the local community protested against the actions of the doctors at Hospital Lídice, saying that the dispute is part of an opposition campaign to destabilize the country in the lead-up to the constitutional reform referendum on December 2 and accusing them of holding a "guarimba" (an orchestrated protest aimed at provoking violence), saying their actions were politically motivated.

Community representative Lina Figueroa said, "We have had enough of the trouble that is happening in the hospitials… They want to create a guarimba, they say they don't have political aims, yes they have political aims, this is manipulated. Down with the guarimba!"

Doctors from Venezuela's public and private hospitals have long been some of the most vocal opponents of the Chavez government and in particular its health policy, which has universalized free healthcare for the country's poor. In a direct attack on the government health program Mission Barrio Adentro, which employs 20,000 Cuban doctors, Sánchez claimed, "The health policy implemented by this government has resulted in failure, because it consists of the creation of a parallel system with foreign personnel of doubtful reputation."

However, the government says that the Cuban doctors are necessary because most Venezuelan doctors, predominantly from wealthier backgrounds, refuse to work in poor neighborhoods.

Health Minister, Jesús Mantilla assured yesterday that in response to the demands for salary increases first raised by the FMV on September 12 that a general income revision is being carried out to determine any necessary adjustments. He also said there was a process of verifying numbers of active and retired personnel in the health sector.

Mantilla explained that the problems in Venezuela's public hospital system were a consequence of the decentralization process that was carried out in the 1990s. The Venezuelan healthcare system is currently divided into four main national institutions, each with its own hospital and insurance system as well as numerous state and municipal hospitals with corresponding bureaucracies and salary differentials.

The health policy of the Chavez government has prioritized immediate results and service delivery to the people, through Mission Barrio Adentro, essentially bypassing the old bureaucratic public health institutions. However, the Chavez government has also introduced Mission Barrio Adentro II aimed creating Popular Clinics or – "mini" hospitals to address the need for more specialized care, as well as initiating Mission Barrio Adentro III in mid-2005 to address the crisis in the existing public hospital system, by providing full funding after decades of neglect. The government is also funding thousands of medical students to create more Venezuelan doctors who are willing to work in the barrios to eventually replace the Cuban doctors.

Mantilla affirmed that the Ministry of Health was also drafting a new law that would address the issue of reform in the public health sector. In contrast, he argued, the FMV "works to smooth the way for the privatization of health in Venezuela." They didn't protest previous governments when "there was no investment in the health sector," he explained.

In relation to the incident at Lídice Hospital on Monday, the non-governmental organization Reporters for Truth asked the National Telecommunications Commission to investigate Globovision. Marcos Hernández, president of Reporters for Truth said Globovision was specially invited to the doctors' assembly at Lídice and "provoked" the incident in which a doctor tackled an armed security guard as part of a "media show."

Accusing Globovision of "media terrorism," Hernández contended that repeated transmissions of the incident by Globovision, where they portrayed the doctor as a "hero," was intended to "generate violence" in the country and therefore violated the law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television.

Hernández also argued that the campaign by the doctors was aimed at "paralyzing the health sector" as part of a broader opposition campaign to generate instability in the country in the lead up to the December 2 referendum on constitutional reform.

José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, Mayor of the municipality of Sucre also warned that sectors of the opposition are attempting to create "a media campaign" of instability and "are preparing violent actions."