IT HAS BEEN the hallmark of socialism in Venezuela: free, high-quality medical care. Late President Hugo Chávez changed the constitution to guarantee such right to all Venezuelans. But that same health care system is now crumbling under the weight of an economic crisis, causing a severe shortage of normal medical care and many avoidable deaths. Venezuela has grown increasingly alienated from the United States and its Central American neighbors, but its political estrangement doesn’t justify the lack of urgency from the international community. Although many places call out for medical intervention, Venezuela’s growing medical collapse deserves a significant dose of humanitarian aid from near and far.
A jarring report in The Wall Street Journal last month described the plight of sick Venezuelans. Many are dying because underfunded hospitals lack medical supplies, including basic medicines and medical products such as heart valves. Since 2003, it’s estimated that some 13,000 doctors have left the country. The Associated Press also reported on the ordeal of women with breast tumors. Doctors in Venezuela must sometimes resort to 1940s-type treatments: They are performing radical mastectomies in cases where radiation would be effective, because radiotherapy machines are just not available. Indeed, “Chávezcare” is falling apart by any measure.
The medical system in Venezuela is a symptom of an economy in shambles. Inflation is at 70 percent and the nation’s economy is expected to contract by 7 percent this year. Venezuelan hospitals imported only $200 million in medical equipment last year, down from $800 million four years ago. Only about 35 percent of the country’s hospital beds are operational. With medical supplies limited or unavailable, Venezuelans often are left to their own devices to find them.
Venezuela deserves its status as a political pariah: Its brutal crackdowns on its people have included a doctor who pointed out some obvious health risks at one hospital. Unfortunately, the recent US sanctions have only provided Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro with fodder to rile up support at home, despite his plummeting popularity. Last month, Maduro took out a full-page ad in The New York Times condemning the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration, stating that Venezuela is not a national security threat to the United States. According to CNN, the ad cost $100,000 — funds that could have saved lives had they been used instead to alleviate the crisis in the Venezuelan medical system.
President Obama and his counterparts in Latin America should seize the momentum and good will generated in Panama a few weeks ago at the seventh Summit of the Americas, which Cuba attended for the first time. “The best the US government can do regarding Venezuela is to stay quiet and work through our partners in the hemisphere that have much greater influence in Venezuela, such as Colombia, Mexico, and others in the region,” observes Jason Marczak, a Latin American expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington foreign policy think tank. Indeed, there is huge potential for diplomacy in the region now that relations between the United States and Cuba are cordial. For the sake of many innocent victims of a moribund health care system, Venezuela’s medical crisis deserves America’s attention.
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