Foreign Policy Blogs

Cuban Doctors Pay Bribes to Flee Venezuela

Some say that Venezuelan democracy is under assault, with Hugo Chávez and his cronies consolidating power. The populace may vote, but there is strong pressure to support the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PVUV in Spanish), and a penalty for those who support the opposition (e.g. being black-listed from government jobs). On the other hand, many argue that the president and PSUV have greatly expanded public participation. Thousands of citizens who once felt they had no stake in the political process now vote for national representatives and their local communal councils (consejos comunales). Regardless of where one stands on the level of democratic participation in Venezuela, another way for people to “vote” is with their feet.

An interesting article in today’s El Universal, one of the major newspapers in Caracas, describes the recent flight of seven Cuban doctors. All boarded an American Airlines flight bound for Miami, after paying bribes to both Venezuelan and Cuban officials. The report states that during the last twelve months nearly 200 doctors have departed Venezuela through its Maiquetía International Airport, at a cost of between $300 to $1,000 per person.

Venezuela, despite the medical assistance provided by Cuban doctors, is suffering a severe case of brain drain. This does not seem surprising for a few reasons:

First, it is a reminder that when given the opportunity, those who can leave Venezuela often do so. Over a decade of Chávez’s rule, thousands have abandoned the country to seek a better life in neighboring countries, North America, Europe, or wherever they have some connection. On a personal level, during my second stint living in Caracas I found that four friends (all well-educated and in their mid to late 20s) had departed to study and work in the United States, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.

Second, it is another example of the depth of corruption that pervades Venezuelan society. The culture of paying off others is so pervasive that in some government offices a bribe must be paid just to assure that the worker does what is within their normal job description.

The Cuban doctors that work in the oft-praised health missions established by the Venezuelan government (Misión Barrio Adentro), are over-worked and underpaid. They toil in government-sponsored clinics as part of an agreement in which Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil shipments. One afternoon, while waiting on the subway platform for the next train, I met one such doctor. We chatted briefly on the ride and she described the long work hours and tough living conditions; she shared an apartment in a poor barrio with other Cuban doctors, and bought food from the government’s Mercal markets. Asking her if she had explored some of Caracas, perhaps hiking El Ávila, the beautiful mountain that provides a backdrop to the capital, she explained that she had neither the time nor the energy. While dedicated to improving others’ health, she herself looked physically drained, not to mention unenthusiastic about the prospect of continuing this grueling routine for a few years in Venezuela.



David D. Sussman

David D. Sussman is currently a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University), in Boston, Massachusetts. Serving as a fellow at the Feinstein International Center, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the lives of Colombian refugees and economic migrants in Caracas, Venezuela. David has worked on a variety of migrant issues that include the health of displaced persons, domestic resettlement of refugees, and structured labor-migration programs. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the Fletcher School, where he studied the integration of Somali and Salvadoran immigrants. David has a B.A. from Dartmouth College and is fluent in Spanish. He has lived in Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela, and also traveled throughout Latin America. In his free time David enjoys reading up on international news, playing soccer, cooking arepas, and dancing salsa casino. Areas of Focus: Latin America; Migration; Venezuela.