Since 2003, Cuba has been sending battalions of doctors to Venezuela in exchange for cash and crude.
The program, known as Barrio Adentro, offers free medical care to some of the nation’s poorest. It’s been credited with saving more than a million lives and is one of the pillars of the socialist revolution.
But according to health workers who have defected from the program, Barrio Adentro has been hollowed out by fraud. And they say they were under such intense pressure to hit quotas that they’ve been faking statistics for years.
As a dentist in the program, Thaymi Rodríguez said she was required to see 18 patients a day, but often only a handful would make their way to her clinic. Medical workers who didn’t hit their daily quota were threatened with having their pay docked, being transferred or, in extreme cases, being sent back to Cuba.
To make up for the patient shortfall, Rodríguez said she and her colleagues would routinely fake paperwork and reinforce the fiction by throwing out anesthesia, dental molds and other supplies.
“I worked for three and a half years as a dentist in Venezuela and it was horrible dealing with the statistics,” said Rodríguez, who defected from the program late last year and is in Colombia awaiting a U.S. visa. “I might see five patients a day but I had to say I’d seen 18, and then throw all that medicine away, because we simply had to.”
Trashing medicine in a country where it’s desperately needed was painful, doctors said. But if they were caught giving it away — or even worse, selling it — they would be kicked out of the mission and sent back to Cuba. And regular audits of their supplies meant they needed them to match their patient count.
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The claims are difficult to verify, and calls to Venezuela’s Ministry of Health seeking comment went unanswered. But the Miami Herald spoke to three different groups of health workers who had abandoned the program, and all told similar stories.