HAVANA TIMES – It’s Bernardo’s first mission. It seems that going to Venezuela is a prerequisite if you want to go to another country afterwards. As a doctor, he would have preferred Brazil, but that option is no longer on the table.
He landed in Venezuela’s Amazon region in a helicopter. It was also his first time flying in a helicopter. There isn’t any electricity in the town he was sent to. The electrical substation burned down a few years ago and still hasn’t been replaced or repaired.
The Colombian-Venezuelan border is extremely close by, less than two kilometers away in fact. There isn’t any Internet access where he is living either. Bernardo has to regularly cross the river and reach Colombian soil in order to communicate with his family in Cuba.
He was warned not to do that, but this is the only way he can keep in touch with his wife. Sometimes, he asks a Venezuelan friend who crosses over the border to connect to the Internet with his phone. Then, all of his IMO and Whatsapp messages get sent within five minutes of being connected.
When in early 2019 border tensions got heated between both countries again (because of humanitarian aid deliveries across the border), Bernardo’s family, in Matanzas, began to get worried.
“He’s never told us that he’s been afraid for his safety, but we started to pick up on the fact that he was anxious when things got bad,” his wife tells us.
“We went two whole days without being able to contact him and then we learned that he had been moved to another place far from there [the border].”
“The most tense moment for me were those days with the ‘humanitarian aid’,” Bernardo tells us via Messenger. “Even though things in the town were normal, people were a little agitated. I thought that if things got ugly, they were going to send us back to Cuba, and we had even packed a few things in case, but then we were moved and things are better.”
However, the 100-hour blackout came after the border tensions. For Venezuelans, it was the climax of an energy crisis that has been ongoing since 2011, but it was a “piece of cake” for Bernardo. “Back in that town in Amazonia, we had to get used to living without electricity,” he says. And, I have a great deal of experience of carrying water when I was living at the pre-university residence in Cuba.”
“The thing that really hit me hard was not being able to talk to our loved ones for almost three days. With things the way they are here in Venezuela, if eight hours pass by and people in Cuba haven’t heard from you, they automatically assume the worse.”
Cuban medical collaborators continue in Venezuela, in spite of the crisis
In the 55 years of Cuba’s International Medical Mission, over 400,000 Cuban health professionals have provided care in 124 countries. During this time, the largest “evacuation” of collaborators to be recorded was between November and December 2018, when the Cuban government decided to withdraw its medical staff from the Brazilian program “Mais Medicos” and over 6,000 health professionals returned to the island in less than a month.
With Venezuela’s current crisis, Cubans’ concerns, both here and there, have also grown. Nicolas Maduro’s government is Cuba’s main trade partner and political ally. Right now, there are 21,000 Cubans in Venezuela, carrying out all kinds of missions, and the alliance that both governments defend is personified by every one of these persons.
“He told me that he was going to ask to end his mission, that he was afraid,” Adriana tells us, the wife of a doctor from Cienfuegos, who already has three international missions under his belt, and is now on his second mission in Venezuela.
Without enough credit on her phone to call him and with the vivid memory of their last phone call, she’s not been able to sleep the last few nights.
“We’ve been saving for years to be able to buy a house but, if it was up to me, I’d prefer to have him home now, for good,” Adriana admits, sobbing. “Every time I watch the news, my heart sinks even though they say everything is OK. And, on top of that, we communicate less and less.”
She says that she has called the Medical Collaboration office and they always tell her not to worry. “They assure me that they are OK and protected, that both countries are ensuring their safety, but I can’t shake this uncertainty.”
The tense situation in the South American country and plenty of indications to Cuban collaborators that they are complicit and even the reason for the political and social crisis that this country is experiencing, triggers fear regarding their physical wellbeing in the case things do turn violent.
Ever since Juan Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, swore himself in as Venezuela’s interim president in front of thousands of his followers, Cubans have turned to social media to ask what would happen if the Chavista government were to fall or if things were to turn violent.
“We’ve been told that we can’t leave our homes and medical centers at all, but we haven’t been given information about the possibility of there being an emergency evacuation from the country,” a Facebook user wrote.
Two days later, this restriction was withdrawn.
Although the medical collaborators and their relatives that we could contact, assure us they are safe and calm, several social media users have asked the Cuban government to withdraw its diplomatic and professional personnel in the South American country.
On Twitter, elTOQUE asked several officials at the Ministry of Public Health about a possible evacuation plan for Cuban doctors and the conditions it would be implemented in. Up until now, we still haven’t received a response.
Venezuela: the picture of a country drawn with many a rumor and not very much certainty
After Angola, Venezuela is the second country in the world that has had the largest presence of Cuban internationalists. During almost 20 years, almost 220,000 collaborators have been there and 140,000 of these belong to the health sector.
Their work has been paid in millions of barrels of oil, and this still represents the largest source of revenue for Cuba’s shrinking economy.
Alain is a young surgeon who admits that he never thought that this was going to be an easy mission. “From the very beginning, you know things aren’t looking too good if you have to bring more food and personal hygiene items in your suitcase than clothes,” he says.
“The thing is that this is the only way many of us can make some cash and buy things with a discount using a bank card back in Cuba,” he continues
Ever since 2012, the Bank of Credit and Commerce (BANDEC) has allowed all collaborators on a mission in Venezuela to use a BANDEC debit card to purchase things in CUC with a 30% discount.
“With the money we get deposited there every month and the discount we receive for being on a mission, we have been able to buy a few things for the house,” Alain explains. “And here, you can’t buy things like you could before. Things are really expensive.”
Before the national blackout, he remembers that the most tense moment was when he got a strange call from his mom.
“She called me desperate because back in Cuba, at a Venezuela solidarity event at her work, a doctor told another that they were sending the women back to Cuba,” he tells us.
Although Alain claims he hasn’t heard anything about this, his colleague Antonio knew about a friend who had to get off a plane so that the women could go first.
“He was going on holiday back to Cuba and his flight got postponed because priority was being given to female professionals who were going on holiday or were at the end of their mission, but that’s the only thing I know,” he says.
“I’m waiting to go back to Cuba myself, but I understand women have priority in case things get worse,” Antonio admits.
Martha, who isn’t scheduled to go back for now, is nervous and doesn’t talk about the subject too much because she’s afraid her phone “is tapped”.
“I would like the TV to say more about how Cubans are living over there. Not about their work, which I know is great, but about their lives outside the clinic or hospital,” a collaborator’s daughter requests, her mother is in Maracaibo. “I’ve heard some stories about people who have to go fetch water every day, about how expensive food is, the robberies, about how they aren’t allowed to give interviews,” she says.
The Cuban State’s secretive handling of this news plus the censorship imposed on collaborators in this country means that it’s practically impossible to form a clear picture about the situation over in Venezuela, from Cuba at least.
But, one thing for certain and that the doctors we consulted, and their relatives confirmed, is that in order to get a mission in a calmer country than Venezuela, you have to first pass this “crucial test” there. Those who dare to talk about their less than pleasant experiences ask to remain anonymous, fearing they might lose their mission, now or in the future.
In spite of the crisis: “we are OK”
Maikel remembers the days of the blackout as if it were yesterday. The hours without electricity during the ‘90s in Cuba, the so-called “Special Period”, and then between 2004 and 2005, increased her ability to be resist and survive.
“When there was the blackout for a few days in Venezuela, we all came together and made a stew,” she says. Somebody even went as far as saying that it seemed like a CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) party. Even though there are many differences, we all help each other when times get tough, like they did at the beginning of March.”
And those days without electricity were really hard for Cubans. “Those days were critical, you can’t even imagine,” Alejandro says from Maracaibo, to a friend on Whatsapp.
And when asked, “did you starve?”, he answers: “Starve, no. But, I had to cook all the meat I had in the fridge because it was going to go bad and work carried on like always,” he says.
From Ciudad Bolivar, Magela confirms that patients continue to come and they continue to see them without stopping.
At a Comprehensive Diagnostic Center (CDI) (secondary level care institutions where Cubans work) in the country’s north, two collaborators thought to go up a hill where there was an office of the electric company alongside an electric tower, so that they could charge their phones.
“We helped them slip away because we aren’t allowed to go there, much less during the blackout,” Rodolfo recounts. “They charged all the devices they could and then we shared them to call people back in Cuba.”
For many, the most important thing is being OK and having the basic. In spite of the varying conditions in every city and the tense situation Venezuela is experiencing, the Cuban collaborators we were able to talk to all assured us they felt relatively safe.
“There is always an opposition supporter who shouts horrible things about Cuba and us, but we ignore these things,” Rodolfo says.
“Plus, other Venezuelans always look out for us. Here, Cubans care for many poor people who appreciate our work. Times are tough, but we have to think positively. We came here to improve our future.”