The youthful faces of the Cuban health personnel stationed in Río Negro. Photo: Dilbert Reyes Rodríguez

San Carlos de Río Negro, Venezuela.—The flight to this town, the southernmost of the Venezuelan portion of the Amazon, had been too quiet to forewarn of the scare of the landing.

A plane that suddenly rises just as it is about to land on the runway, and abruptly turns over on its side, is enough to make any newcomer’s hair stand on end, and the subject of conspiratory sniggering from the pilots.

“Chill out, Cuban, it’s just a training maneuver, to observe the runway,” one of the pilots says, as the plane straightens and gently descends onto the runway.

“Caramba, but you could at least warn us, couldn’t you?” is the only response.

Once firmly on the ground, the welcome from the small team in white coats is emotional. One by one they approach the plane with a hug. A handshake is not enough, as despite not really knowing who they are greeting, you're from the same island and smell of the nearest city.

They have brought three wheelchairs with them, despite no patients arriving on the plane: “They’re for our medicine, that of the collaborators,” radiologist Yasmani Peñalver from Artemisa explains, and then begins unloading packages of rice, powdered milk, pasta and some chicken from the plane’s hold, things they have been missing for some time.

“As I said, our medicine,” he jokes and happily pushes the supplies along, assisted by a “multidisciplinary” quartet of enthusiastic women: therapist Graciela Ferrer from Pinar del Río, podiatrist Yuniet Velázquez from Villa Clara, laboratorist Daimara Campañá from Ciego de Ávila and Mariela González, a pharmacist from Mayabeque.

San Carlos de Río Negro resembles a maquette, a miniature model of a city, which appears as though it was built and then brought here, to be placed in the middle of the jungle, on the Venezuelan side of this wide stretch of water, the main tributary of the Amazon.

It has few streets, all of which are cement and arranged in symmetrical order, with standard measurements, curbs, sidewalks, gardens in front of houses with slanting roofs. There are several schools, shops, some public buildings, and for the size of the riverside town, the sports stadium alongside the runway is surprisingly large.

It is a town that can’t be accessed by land, in which distances are relatively short; but the use of motorbikes is characteristically Venezuelan, albeit to travel just 100 meters, and they whiz up and down, driven by women, men and even teenagers.

“That's why you get sick so easily, it’s too much for you to walk,” one of the doctors jokes with a neighbor, who stops short in front of him on a bike. “And then you don’t want to be obese and diabetic. Tell me, has your girl still got the flu? Bring her in this afternoon to examine her again.”

Around the corner of the first block is what has become the main public building, since a few years back, of the town. The CDI (Comprehensive Diagnostic Center) is the most visited building by residents and has all its doors open, even though no one is inside, as they all rushed out to the runway when they heard the plane coming in.

“For the population it is like a second home, where they come when they feel the slightest discomfort. But it is also ours, literally, because we live here. The residence is not ready yet and for weeks there has been no electricity due to the lack of fuel, which arrives on barges along the river,” explains Juan José, the young doctor leading the Cuban team.

“At least here we take advantage of the middle of the night with the clinic’s generator to charge phones, cool down the rooms where we sleep, pump water and do everything we can not without power. We also try to coincide with the start-up of the telephone service station, because outside of that time, there is no phone coverage.”

The welcome was, to begin with, a good lunch to make up for the limited diet of previous weeks, and while each cooked according to his or her taste, a map of the area caught my attention, observing a distant point called Maroa, beyond the northwest border of Río Negro.

Six of the seven municipalities of the Venezuelan State of Amazonas can be reached by plane, except Maroa, given the conditions of the runway there and a recent accident. For the doctors stationed there, like locals, the journey to San Carlos is four or five hours by boat along the river.
Geographically, Maroa is closer to Ayacucho than San Carlos, but the current access conditions, which mean having to sail downstream south, before flying north to reach the state capital, make it the most remote area. To get there would be the best challenge. After all, there were also Cubans working there.

“You don’t go to Maroa hoping to return soon. You leave when you can,” a young man with a distinctively Cuban accent, dressed in jeans, a cap worn to one side and a hoodie says.

“I’ve come from there thinking that the plane would bring our food, but nothing. I’m going back in a little while with some medicines. You’re a journalist, right? If you dare, we’re leaving in a couple of hours.”

Who, having come this far, wouldn’t take up such a challenge? In any case, I would have to return via Río Negro, and these guys would still be here with their stories; but I would never hear those of the personnel in Maroa if I missed this sudden opportunity.

“Ready when you are.”