With poor working conditions and wages as low as a few dollars a month in their home country, some Venezuelans have no choice but to seek greener pastures.
Since the start of the Venezuelan socioeconomic and political crisis in 2010, around 4.5 million Venezuelans have left the Latin America nation.
Today in Venezuela there is an ever-growing vacuum of doctors and medical professionals as practitioners flee abroad.
“The deterioration [of the Venezuelan healthcare system] was gradual, bit by bit due to shortages in resources,” says Giovanni Meza an academic and President of Uvenar, a Venezuelan union in Argentina.
“Some doctors began to leave because they weren’t receiving wages. Private clinics were in the same situation,” he says.
In Venezuela salaries range from $2-4 per month for doctors.
More than 22,000 medics have left the country according to the Academy of Medicine in Venezuela.
Many are now choosing Argentina to practice medicine.
Juan Carlos Avendano-Noguera is a 30-year-old Venezuelan doctor. In May 2017, he visited his Argentine girlfriend whilst midway through his post-grad studies in medicine. When Juan returned home, the situation had deteriorated.
It was affecting his wellbeing, as mass protests called ‘guarimbas’ engulfed his hometown of Merida, in western Venezuela. It made it dangerous to leave home, due to the threat of being robbed or being in the wrong place at the wrong time - as streets were blockaded by protestors.
Public hospitals experienced shortages in medical supplies and this wrested with Juan’s conscience.
“It was hard for a young person who is developing, as a doctor. We were coming up against bad medical practices, because of the lack of resources,” he says.
Juan experienced malfunctioning air conditioning. Medical laboratories testing patient samples like blood or saliva lacked the resources to work. There were constant problems with machinery like X-rays, MRI scanners and a scarcity of basic medicines which are usually taken for granted in most hospitals.
“We had to make use of what little we had. We were incurring bad practices and ultimately it was our responsibility,” he says.
The daily neglect of working in an under-resourced hospital forced him to speak out about the conditions.
“We couldn’t keep quiet against a lack of resources in the face of the humanitarian crisis, which was happening in the country. We raised the situation with the authorities,” he explains.
The decision did not go down well. As a result, a governmental task force known as ‘colectivos’ - which operate to clamp down on dissidents even within the hospitals - began to harass him, after he and other doctors decried the workings conditions.
Juan says the harassment got worse after verbal threats. They came looking for him, roughing him up at the hospital until he would hide away. Despite being half-way through his post-grad degree, he knew he had to leave Venezuela and to return to the security of Argentina with his partner.
“Once they detect someone who is against the government or reporting the sanitary crisis - then the persecution begins. I also experienced this,” says Yang Alvarez, a 30-year-old general practitioner from the northern area of Falcon in Venezuela.
“The harassment begins both inside and outside the hospital. Threats begin - they tell you, you can’t say this or that.”
This was also the deciding factor for his move to Argentina with his partner.
“It gets to a point where you say I’m leaving or I’m going to end up in jail or dead as the government doesn’t allow any form of dissidence in Venezuela. You can’t raise your voice or say that there’s no resources or that you’re experiencing this kind of situation. They’ll label you a ‘traitor’, an enemy of the revolution. You end up becoming a victim of persecution.”
Another issue affecting doctors is the threat of gang-related incidents where other gangs come to finish off the job according to Meza.
Indira Acosta, 44, had worked in public healthcare for over 15 years when the working conditions began really affecting her.
“As a gynecologist I worked in a delivery room and I would arrive in the morning at 7am to do my rounds - there were no beds. There would be 50-60 people waiting outside to be seen by a doctor. I knew more or less by 3pm that I could have a bed to put some of them on. At that moment I resigned from my job,” she says.
“I knew I couldn’t offer my services to the public, because it is not down to me to decide who is more of an emergency, because all of them had to be treated.”
Without resources to work, Indira says the ‘colectivos’ often tell patients that doctors don’t want to treat them.
“Many colleagues were assaulted, saying you [the doctor] don’t want to treat my family and it wasn’t like that, rather we don’t have the means to do it. We didn’t have the supplies to treat those people,” she explains.
Indira is one of the doctors that had her life, her children, her home and car back in Barquisimeto, central Venezuela. She said she would never leave. But as the situation worsened, she moved to Argentina in February 2019.
After Yang arrived in Buenos Aires, he learnt that other Venezuelans doctors were arriving. What initially started as a solidarity group for Venezuelan medics starting off life in a new country on WhatsApp, later transformed into a lawfully constituted civil association of Venezuelan doctors in Argentina, called Asomvenar. The first of its kind in Latin America.
It helped Venezuelans like Indira with the unknown procedures around the legal processes. She is now the chair to the director of the association.
Today Asomvenar’s group has 1,300 Venezuelan medics, and has helped around 650 Venezuelan medics to become fully legal to work in Argentina. The rest are going through the various stages. Around 30-40 doctors register per month.
The law for Venezuelan doctors changed this year in February. Before the new decree was introduced, the validation of university degrees was processed through independent universities in Argentina at a cost. Juan found the process long. It included several competency tests. Today this option still costs around $1,000.
Since the new decree passed through the Ministry of Education called ‘Tramites a Distancia’, Venezuelans can upload their legally apostilled documents (from academic grades to degree certificate) online to become fully legal to work in the country. Sometimes there are competency tests.
Argentina has no bilateral agreements with Venezuela, making this a necessary step for Venezuelan doctors wishing to practice in Argentina.
This certification gives Venezuelan doctors ‘international recognition’ for their services, according to Meza. “A Venezuelan doctor who has managed to validate their degree here in Argentina has the possibility to practice medicine across any part of South America,” he says.
Meza says most Argentine doctors prefer to work in the capital cities, or to wait to work in the private sector where the pay rates are higher, leaving some areas of Argentina understaffed.
“There was a demand for more than 2,000 doctors and these are being filled up with Venezuelan doctors,” he says.
Now rural areas are becoming the destination for Venezuelan doctors. “It’s beneficial for the medic who can practice medicine, which they studied to do and it’s beneficial for the town as they can constantly count on the person with a medical background,” says Yang.
Today Venezuelan doctors are found across 16 of the 23 provinces of Argentina. The vast majority of around 600 doctors are in the province of Buenos Aires. The second highest province is Jujuy in northern Argentina, with around 50 medics.
Salaries are the same for doctors of all nationalities, ranging from 600-700 dollars in Buenos Aires, to around 1,000 dollars for rural areas.
Venezuelan doctors say their experiences in their adoptive country have been positive.
“We’ve always received support from the Argentine government and their institutions and the Argentine people in general - the solidarity from all of Argentina towards Venezuelans doctors, has been profound and heartfelt,” says Yang.
But despite the mutual benefits, many Venezuelan doctors are worried about a potential change of government. Current President Mauricio Macri has embraced Venezuelan migrants, being an outspoken critic of Venezuelan President Maduro, whereas his rival candidate in the upcoming elections, Alberto Fernandez, has advocated dialogue with Venezuela, concerning some Venezuelans in Argentina.
“The fear is due to the fact that this type of validation of documents or the flexible legalisation to organise professional documents could be stopped,” says Yang.
Beyond the demands of working long hours at busy hospitals, many Venezuelan doctors also carry out humanitarian voluntary roles on their day off.
‘Children of migrants’
TRT World joined a voluntary Venezuelan gathering of Primary Healthcare professionals on a Saturday in mid-October, with over 100 people from the local community attending. The primary healthcare ranged from psychologists, orthodontists, nutritionists and kinesiologists who partnered with the church and other civil associations.
Denglys Romero from ‘Baires de Libertad’ (Buenos Aires of Freedom), a Venezuelan civil association, had organised the event, linking the church to other organisations
“We like to work in the parishes, because we feel that we’re a little safer,” he explained.
Argentine Rector Eusebio Hernández Greco from the Parish in Cabillito in Buenos Aires, has been working for over 18 months with the Venezuelan community, addressing their needs. Despite some countries like Chile, Ecuador and Peru closing their doors on Venezuelans in need, he says Argentines have not forgotten their roots.
“All of us Argentines - we are the first or second generation sons or grandsons of migrants. This means one has sensitivity towards foreigners arriving who seek dignity for themselves and their families,” he said.
There were plenty of Venezuelans in attendance. Mariani Arias, 35, from Venezuela was attending with her son who had a fever. She said: “I have a lot of faith in the medics from my country which is why I came, but I can’t complain about the hospitals here. I’ve been many times and they’ve treated me well.”
Fellow Venezuelan Gabriel Chang, 16, who came with his mother, is able to find the vaccination he needs. He has spent a year in Argentina. “You have to wait much longer in hospitals, here it’s much more rapid and efficient with doctors from my country,” he said.
“Well today is very well coordinated and it’s been very quick through each of the medical stations,” said Jose Bustos, an elderly gentleman from Venezuela.
In the future Juan and Indira dream of returning to help with the reconstruction of their country.
Juan explains: “We left Venezuela, we didn’t forget Venezuela. We didn’t uproot ourselves. We always miss our country but in this country which has opened its doors in Argentina, we want to develop here by showing all of our potential and our knowledge we developed in Venezuela. This is why we are grateful.
“This is why I’d tell other people from different countries to look at Venezuela, what could happen when there are bad policies and when a country doesn’t take a good path towards prosperity - all of the suffering which impacts a nation. We hope to soon be able to return to our country.”