Since the start of the year, 76 women have died while giving birth in Lara state — the highest rate of any state in Venezuela and three times the rate for the rest of the country.
Speaking about the situation to Green Left Weekly, Katrina Kozarek from the Women’s Movement for Life in Barquisimeto, the capital of Lara, explained: “Both the doctors and nurses treat poor, black women really badly. They slap their bottoms, call them filthy names and say ‘stop screaming because you didn’t scream like that when you were having sex’.”
These are just some of the horror stories from maternity wards that they have been told of, said Kozarek. Doctors can lose their license, be suspended or go to prison for this behaviour, but this has not happened so far.
It is important to note that the health system in Venezuela is decentralised. This means that even though funds and supplies come from the national government, all administrative decisions for health in the states are under the control of local governors. In the case of Lara, this means the opposition governor Henri Falcon and his health director Rui Medina.
There are underground networks illegally trafficking of medicines, which is part of the ongoing economic war against the government of President Nicolas Maduro. Most doctors and nurses tend to belong to the upper classes, who have a whole different vision of how society — and health care — should be run from the government. Overwhelmingly, they support the opposition.
Frequently, nurses or doctors request birthing kits from a public hospital to perform Caesarian sections. However, doctors often sell the kits to traffickers.
Doctor or nurses then tell patients they have to find their own medicine. The families have to go running to pharmacies to seek the needed instruments and medicines.
The director of the central hospital of Valencia in Carabobo state was arrested for trafficking medicine and equipment. Disturbingly, a nurse was sanctioned for promoting the injection of lethal fluids into Chavistas (government supporters) who arrive with injuries at a hospital in Merida state.
To try and overcome this situation, Kozarek said the women’s group in Barquisimeto has set up a system whereby the birthing kit is given directly to the workers in the hospital and they give it to the patients, thereby circumventing the doctors and nurses.
“We were able to bring some justice,” said Kozarek. “Together with workers in the hospital we were able to control this situation.”
The women’s committee of the Ataroa and Loma’s de Leon communes were able to implement a control program. It is called the “Defensoría Comunal Integral de la Mujer” or Women´s Communal Defence in a local hospital in the suburb of La Caruciena.
It is a public hospital, but not the main hospital of Barquisimeto, where most of the deaths and irregularities occur.
“It hasn’t been an easy process, the doctors rebelled over this and last week two specialist doctors in the public hospital threatened to walk out,” said Kozarek.
Another tactic used in this war has been the theft of large equipment items purchased by the Maduro government for public hospitals. In these cases, doctors have stolen the equipment to use them in their private practice.
Some doctors have gone to jail for these thefts, but many have gotten away with it.
The governor of Lara and the previous mayor of Barquisimeto are from the opposition and have helped set up black market networks for medicines and medical equipment.
Denouncing this situation, Kozarek explained: “We held a press conference in 2015 with Unamujer [the National Women’s Union] against the high rate of maternal deaths in Lara as the numbers have just kept rising and rising.
“We went to the Plaza, opposite the governor’s office, and when the cameras started rolling about 50 people from the nearby opposition office came out and started throwing rocks at us.
“We have verified that several of them are paid staff of the governor’s office. There were only about 20 of us”.
As always, none of this reality gets told in the international mass media.