Venezuela's anti-government protesters see doctors-for-oil deal as an intolerable giveaway of nation's vast petroleum wealth

When Judith Faraiz’s son was near death after a severe motorcycle accident, she put his life in the hands of God and Cuban doctors.

Like many in Petare, a sprawling hillside slum of crumbling brick buildings on the eastern outskirts of Caracas, Faraiz has come to rely on Cuban physicians for free health services in a country where private care is too expensive for the poor and public hospitals have a dismal reputation.

The link is vital for both governments — in exchange for the services of its doctors and other professionals, Havana gets an estimated $3.2 billion in cut-rate Venezuelan oil that is a lifeline for Cuba’s ailing economy. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, for his part, relies on social programmes such as these to shore up support among his poor power base even as his approval ratings fall hand-in-hand with a faltering economy.

The Cuban doctors are the most visible symbol of the controversial collaboration between the two countries during 15 years of socialist rule in Venezuela, and increasingly they are a flashpoint for the violent unrest that has rocked the country since February and is blamed for at more than 40 deaths.

Intolerable

The mostly middle and upper-class protesters who have taken to the streets say their country is following the path of Fidel Castro’s one-party Communist system. They see the doctors-for-oil deal as an intolerable giveaway of Venezuela’s vast petroleum wealth, even as the country suffers from 50 percent inflation and chronic shortages of basic goods like flour, cooking oil and toilet paper, not to mention a homicide rate among the world’s highest.

For supporters of Maduro’s government, however, the doctors are an example of concrete improvements in their lives.

Stipend

An estimated 31,000 Cuban health workers, about 11,000 of them doctors, are believed to be working in the country today.

Venezuela pays the Cubans a stipend for living expenses and they sleep in dormitories at the clinics where they work. Havana also pays them $425 a month about 20 times the average government salary back home.

The South American country sends about 100,000 barrels of oil every day to Cuba that accounts for half the island’s domestic energy consumption, University of Texas energy analyst Jorge Pinon says. When the Cuban doctors arrived in Petare five years ago, residents initially eyed them with suspicion and sometimes slammed the door in their faces.

Welcomed

Today the Cubans who staff “La Urbina” clinic are welcomed as they walk the mazelike streets making house calls and vaccinating children. The clinic offers free emergency, ophthalmology and pediatric care, as well as minimally invasive surgical procedures. Its several dozen staffers also minister to gunshot victims and drug and alcohol addicts.

But outside the slums and poor rural communities of Venezuela, the Cubans have become a focus of anti-government rage.

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