Getting Sick in Venezuela Has Become a Death Sentence

From Tylenol to chemo — if you need it, you’re out of luck.

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For her 13th birthday, my wife Marianella was given a child’s Swiss Army watch with a glow-in-the-dark dial. This portable treasure would soon become one of her only possessions. Seven weeks later, she was evacuated from her rooftop by helicopter as her hometown, Los Corales, and most of her friends and neighbors, were swept into the Caribbean Sea. An estimated 30,000 souls lost their lives to the torrential rains, mudslides and flooding that befell Venezuela’s Vargas state in December 1999, although we will never know precisely how many.

We’ll likewise never know how many of the lost might have been saved had the country’s newly elected president, Hugo Chávez, not spurned offers of U.S. assistance on ideological grounds. In so doing, he turned back hundreds of American military engineers along with their equipment — the most advanced naval and logistical support on the planet. For all Chávez’s many faults, this may have been his most unforgivable crime.

Today Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s ineffectual handpicked successor, is once more following in his predecessor’s footsteps and sacrificing the lives of his countrymen at the altar of ideology. By steadfastly staying a disastrous course despite the unprecedented and growing scarcities of medicine and medical supplies he may even be surpassing his storied mentor. According to official statistics from the ministry of health, the crisis has tripled the mortality rates for patients in public hospitals, and shows little sign of abating.

That Venezuela currently faces an acute shortage of medical supplies and medicines is one of the tragic results of the chaos wrought upon the country’s imports sector by the combination of plunging oil prices, economic mismanagement, and draconian currency controls. In particular, the state’s heavy-handed price control policies make importing pharmaceuticals and other medical goods a losing game. It’s much more profitable for importers to concentrate on seeking opportunities for arbitrage within the country’s arcane, multi-tiered exchange rate system.

The Venezuelan government’s penchant for nationalization as an easy proxy for “decisive action” has led to its taking over key outfits within the domestic pharmaceutical sector over the years, further degrading its capacity to produce such products internally. As a result, everything from Tylenol to life-saving chemotherapy drugs, condoms, and even bug spray — here in the heart of the Zika Virus outbreak — have become unobtainable.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook are awash with pleas for help acquiring urgently needed medications, often from anguished parents on behalf of their children. While many local celebrities like comedian Emilío Lovera make it a point to retweet or repost such requests to their many followers, all too often the drugs cannot be found and the children die. This was the sad fate of 14-year-old Maikel Mancilla Peña earlier this month. Maikel, who had epilepsy, died for want of diazepam and lamotragine. A month’s supply of either would have been available at any U.S. pharmacy for less than 10 dollars.

Such stories are tragically common. For example, under present conditions only one in two hemophilia sufferers will be able to secure their prescribed medications. The Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimates that as many as 80 percent of all medicines are currently scarce or unavailable. With the human costs of the pharmaceutical crisis worsening daily, Venezuela’s National Assembly — which went over to the opposition in the December 2015 elections — has requested emergency assistance from the World Health Organization in a deal that could provide technical aid and much-needed supplies for the suffering population. The Assembly has also received formal unilateral offers of aid from the Spanish government, the Brazilian parliament, and the Panamerican Health Organization. Similar conversations are underway with the Red Cross and the United Nations.

Unfortunately, such offers are dependent upon official cooperation, including a formal government request for aid from Maduro — who has ignored public calls to accept outside assistance. And the National Assembly’s efforts to force his hand by passing a law have been caught up in its ongoing struggle with the executive branch. The measure is openly opposed by the pro-government parliamentary minority, which claims that the issue has been trumped up to discredit the revolution. Some chavista lawmakers also cite concerns about sovereignty and general ideological opposition to international meddling. Even if passed unilaterally, the initiative seems likely to be overturned by the staunchly pro-government Supreme Court.

Having worked ceaselessly to sideline the opposition legislature since before it even took office, Maduro has been reluctant to validate any of its suggestions or initiatives as long as it is actively seeking his downfall. So he has turned the health crisis into a political fútbol. Underplaying the Zika threat, and no longer even publishing many health statistics, the president has instead been pushing an implausible grassroots plan to transform Venezuela’s moribund pharmaceutical industry into a powerhouse that would cover all domestic needs itself.

“We must be able to produce all the medicines our people need and achieve real export capacity, breaking away from the rentier oil model inherited from the governments of the Fourth Republic,” Maduro recently insisted to a group of local manufacturers. The details of how to accomplish this, however, remain disturbingly vague. Recently the government agreed to pay an estimated $500 million in arrears to three major international pharmaceutical companies through the transfer of distressed bonds from the national oil company, PDVSA. The deal has still left the companies with losses of up to 70 percent. It will be hard to blame them for their subsequent lack of appetite to extend credit to Venezuelan importers (especially when over three billion dollars in such debts remain outstanding).

Meanwhile the Venezuelan Association of Medical and Dental Equipment Suppliers, Laboratories and Related Industries has all but given up, complaining that inventories for medical and surgical equipment are effectively depleted. Those surgeons and specialists who have not left Venezuela to seek a better life abroad thus find themselves unable to practice their trade for want of supplies. Nearly 70 percent of surgical wards in public hospitals have been rendered inactive. As a result, Venezuelans are forced to undertake procedures elsewhere, crossing the shuttered border with Colombia at great hazard and financial cost, often on foot.

Those too sick or impoverished to undertake such journeys are simply out of luck. A free phone number, announced with much fanfare by the government, allows citizens to request medications directly. But most of those who do so find only a prerecorded message saying “all operators are busy, please try later.”

It may be that Maduro genuinely believes his own conspiratorial rhetoric about perfidious international organizations seeking to undermine his revolution. But the crisis in Venezuelan health care should not be a matter of ideology — this is about humanity. Nepal, is, like Venezuela, a leftist country, with two of the biggest political parties (and the ruling legislative majority) openly espousing communist views. But following last year’s earthquake, they readily accepted crucial aid even from “imperialist enemies” like the United States and Great Britain.

Venezuela must do likewise. Today it faces an economic and social earthquake of the government’s own making. Unlike the 1999 tragedy in Vargas, the medicine crisis has been a long time in the making, and the remedies are obvious. With each passing day, Maduro places political narcissism over urgent human need. It’s past time to put life first.

In the photo, a woman holds a sign reading “We need supplies to save your life” during a protest against medicine shortages by health-related personnel and medical students s in Caracas on February 26, 2016.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.