CARACAS.— “For us, they were like a light, that’s how I thought of them; a source of hope for we poor. Cubans started to arrive; the first to Loma Alta. We began to get them settled in here and they gave consultations in small makeshift units.” Mercedes Quintero Bravo; a receptionist at the Rafael Urdaneta Comprehensive Diagnostic Unit (CDI), in Catia, in the capital’s Sucre district lights up as she recounts her 15 years with the Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighborhood) project.
“I learned that the comandantes Fidel and Chávez had decided to launch this initiative given the lack of medical care and treatment for the people here, for our community. There were no clinics for we poor or “barefoot beggars,” as they call us, or hospital services,” she explains.
The light Mercedes refers to had human faces: “The first Cubans I saw were Dr. Lania, Dr. Lázaro and his spouse. Then Dr. Benedicto arrived, followed by a cardiologist, a nurse…we put the equipment in the unit, set up a laboratory in the Julio Carcaño school, cardiology, dentistry, and optometry units, all together, that’s how it began,” recalls Mercedes.
The receptionist was immediately won over by the humility of the Cubans: “It wasn’t a doctor-non-doctor relationship; we were like siblings, friends, good friends in every sense. We (Venezuelans) had never seen this kind of relationship between doctors and the people before; they were all the same, always trying to help saying, “We’re going to look for this,” or “We’re going to visit so and so.”
But those were also stressful months: “At the beginning many people closed the door in our faces, both ours and the Cuban doctors’ - however slowly but surely we went around knocking on doors, delivering medicine…until they opened their doors to us and we won them over. Everyone realized that an alternative existed,” she happily states.
Lania stayed with you. What was it like having a stranger stay in your home?
I don’t regard the Cubans as strangers. I refer to one of them as “my son”, the other calls me “sister” and another “mom”… they are friendly, caring, courteous. I like how disciplined they are; the Cubans are good people, plain and simple. They operated on my nephew, my brother-in-law, and my grandson. The Cubans helped me and everyone else; that’s what I see in Barrio Adentro. Oh no! I didn’t have a stranger staying in my house…no, no, no, not at all!
The Into the Neighborhood project has continued to grow. After 15 years what would you say have been the key results of Barrio Adentro in Venezuela?
The name says it all: it has reached into our hearts, it’s with us, supporting the people, supporting the poor. Barrio Adentro has offered healthcare, knowledge, and experience. Even our doctors trained in Cuba adore their profession. Barrio Adentro has given us a great deal and still has more to give.
LEARNING TO BELIEVE
In the early days of the project in 2003, Mara Cárdenas Reinoso, received three “beautiful” Cuban doctors: Alejandro, Inés, and Blanca, for just three nights in the house she was living in at the time.
Eventually the Bolivarian government offered a new apartment to the waitress at CDI Urdaneta, who still remembers those first days with the Cubans.
“They didn’t like arepas (corn-cakes), but now they do. We make them for them, but with sugar. Now they eat pasta, which they didn’t at the beginning. All they wanted was congrí (rice and black beans), all the time,” she explains, smiling.
During that time Mara also learned some new words “which shouldn’t be repeated,” she notes with a hint of mischief in her voice. However, becoming serious, she explains that for her, the Cuban doctors at the CDI were no different from other Venezuelans. “They are very courteous, very disciplined. They had a different way of doing things, for example, they helped be become more organized. I enrolled in the nursing assistant course, and now I help administer injections, do the little things. I get on well with the patients because I like to help. Dr. Dolores, who has returned to Cuba, taught me a lot, although I still work as a waitress.
Despite her “advanced age” Mara still wants to continue learning and Barrio Adentro awakened in this woman a vocation she would have otherwise never had the opportunity to pursue.
“I’m always paying attention. I find things to do, like going to get gauze…Then the Cubans help me sew stitches. I take X-rays and anything else they need me to do. They treat me with affection even when I’m cleaning up. I’m there for them if they need me, and they give me whatever I need.
Solidarity goes far beyond their uniformed work; for example, not only did the Cuban doctors treat one of Mara’s brothers who suffered a stroke, they even shared their food – harinitas (a flour and sugar based snack) - with them.
What has the program achieved within the neighborhoods themselves?
It has helped a lot, thanks to my Comandante and the Cubans. Before, the neighborhoods were isolated and doctors wouldn’t even go up into the hills. It was great that you Cubans came. The first couple of months we were in shock, but when we saw why they were here, we accepted them so much so that we didn’t want them to leave.
But what can a small island like Cuba offer a country like Venezuela?
It's love, that’s the most important thing. Medicine too, before we had to buy medicine, now we get it for free. We also get free glasses, consultations, and the care is fantastic. Who brought the José Gregorio Hernández mission? The Cubans. Who brought the glasses? The Cubans! Medical treatment for pregnant women and the elderly? The Cubans!....This is what Barrio Adentro has done. No one thought the people would pay them any mind. But now the Cubans go out to visit the people by themselves. They managed to get everyone to come out and see what they were doing. And I accompanied them, and we met a lot of people who never would have gone to see a doctor before, but who started to go to the doctor and to believe.
BARRIO ADENTRO, A WORK OF THE HEART
They’ve saved my life twice, after I had two heart attacks. If I had gone to a private clinic I would have died, seriously. Millions of Venezuelans have had the same experience even though some members of the opposition continue to be ungrateful.” This is the first thing that comes to mind when Rigoberto Gutiérrez Pereira speaks about Barrio Adentro and the Cuban healthcare workers - a truly heartfelt experience.
And the hearts of the Cuban doctors that saved you twice, how would you describe them?
Full of humility, affection, and love, three essential elements of human beings. The clothes on one's back don’t make a person, you look at a Cuban doctor and you see humility. I’ve seen how some people don’t even want to touch you, after graduating as doctors.
The CDI general assistant stops for a moment mid-interview as he watches Dr. José Arias Riquenes pass. “Look, he is a shining example of commitment, most people can’t tell he is a doctor because he is so humble, but that man supervises all the CDI’s in Caracas.”
Rigoberto didn’t host Cuban doctors when Barrio Adentro first started, but in difficult situations, like when the right wing staged an unsuccessful coup against Chávez, he took a few of them home, “to make sure no one messed with them.”
What was that experience like?
Good, good, Cuba isn’t just Cuba anymore. Look at what they’ve achieved on a blockaded island! There are Cuban athletes, doctors, intellectuals, scientists in 80 countries… their humility has made them great, they were blockaded, and you Cubans gave yourselves value. You Cubans have already experienced what is currently happening to us, and this serves as a lesson for many of us, others reject it and leave, but I’m not leaving my homeland, I’ll die here.
Did you say die? The Cuban doctors have already saved your life twice, so when the time comes I’m sure they’ll fight to save you again.
Yes, it’ll be a struggle, because that’s what they do best: struggle against death.