Cuba’s Medical Missions in Venezuela: Hotspot for Corruption

Uberto Mario* (Cafe Fuerte)

La Pradera International Health Center, Siboney, Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — In the course of my five years in Venezuela, I undertook several journalistic investigations which allowed me to trail numerous criminals who, hiding behind their embroidered guayabera shirts and medical gowns, carried out all manner of illegal actions and turned Cuba’s internationalist medical mission into a veritable den of corruption.

Thousands of health professionals have been sent to Venezuela since Cuba’s first medical mission arrived in the country on December 16, 1999. It is calculated that a hundred thousand Cubans have worked in Venezuela’s Barrio Adentro neighborhood health care program alone.

The sad truth of the matter, however, is that, in addition to managing the work of those who are working in the field and saving human lives, those in charge of these brigades have also availed themselves of their high or mid-level positions to steal State resources left, right and center.

Some have been spared severe punishment and continue to work. Others have not been so lucky and aren’t even allowed to prescribe an aspirin in Cuba.

While it is certainly true that there have been many corrupt bosses in the medical missions it is also true to say that many honest men and women have also passed through. The mob, however, does not recruit honest or humble people.

A Suitcase Full of Dollars

One such honest person was Dr. Luis Acao Francois, a man from Cuba’s province of Camaguey who took on the difficult job of traveling to Venezuela in the midst of the disaster in the state of Vargas, devastated by landslides, relentless downpours and collapsing structures.

He traveled to Venezuela with a suitcase full of dollars, to pay the members of the medical brigade, and didn’t steal a cent. During those first months of work and up until Acao completed his mission as brigade leader, Cuba did not have the banks or checkbooks to pay its medical workers, and good old Acao proved unwavering in his honesty throughout.

This was the only stage of Cuba’s medical campaign in Venezuela in which Cuban intelligence services were in charge of monitoring every cent spent in the missions, a task which, following the arrival of Acao’s replacement, was left in the hands of thieves and common criminals, green lighted by none other than Minister of Public Health Jose Ramon Balaguer.

Aldo de Jesus Hernandez, who replaced Dr. Acao, arrived in Venezuela on December 22, 2002, after the dark days of April – an attempted coup that lasted 3 days – had passed and the country witnessed the beginning of an all-out confrontation between supporters of Hugo Chavez and the opposition. Cuban health brigade workers were arriving in Venezuela by the thousands at the time.

On the night of the briefing, Hernandez met with Cuba’s operative team in Venezuela: Major Amado Hernandez Iturruaga, then head of Cuba’s medical mission, Colonel Tomas Rodriguez (alias “Ariel”), the Cuban Embassy’s top official (currently working in Miraflores), and myself. We had already reviewed the file of Acao’s replacement, who had served as Public Health secretary in Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud until then.

A Package Full of Goodies

In a week’s time, Hernandez began to show his true colors, proving to be an arrogant, demagogical leader who remained out of touch with the concerns of the then nearly four thousand Cuban medical professionals scattered across the country’s 16 states.

Not one month since his arrival had gone by when we caught him sending off a package full of “goodies” to Cuba, before even having been paid his salary, and after having told his compatriots that they were on a war footing, that we wouldn’t be receiving a salary for the time being and that we had to stand our ground and work better every day.

While it is certainly true that there have been many corrupt bosses in the medical missions it is also true to say that many honest men and women have also passed through. The mob, however, does not recruit honest or humble people.

That’s when we started to monitor his actions more closely. Hernandez had travelled to Caracas to live and work as a dentist at the Universidad Maritima del Caribe (Caribbean Maritime University) located in the state of Vargas (headquarters of Cuba’s intelligence services in the country).

There, he was to join Nancy Garcia Vera, sister of the then powerful Yadira Garcia Verca, former Minister of Basic Industry and member of the Politburo (incidentally, the two sisters were actually born in Venzuela – Nancy in Caracas, in 1953, and Yadira in Maracaibo, in 1955 – and were later nationalized in Pinar del Rio, Cuba).

Nancy Garcia’s arrival gave Aldo Hernandez the freedom to steal without compunction. In Havana, his godmother Yadira could pick up a phone and, with only one call to Venezuelan ambassador German Sanchez Otero, arrange an Aerocaribbean charter, loaded with goodies for Garcia Vera’s and Hernandez’ family in Isla de la Juventud, every 45 days. These shipments were dispatched at Gate 4 in Venezuela’s Maiquetia Airport.

After these embezzlement activities had been exposed, I was called in by Raul Garcia, a veteran communist who had served as Cuba’s Consul General in Caracas for years. I was at the Cuban embassy when I was suddenly called to Ambassador Sanchez Otero’s office for a dressing-down.

The Untouchables

This is what Raul Garcia told me: “Listen up, journalist. Stop sticking your nose in this business, saying the ambassador is looking out for his people, sending electrical appliances, medications and bicycles to his friends at the Central Committee. Stop saying Balaguer is also receiving gifts from Venezuela, and that there’s a plane that flies over here just for that, that’s none of your business. Your job is to monitor doctors, not us. If German finds out you’ve been doing this, he’ll send you back to Cuba and you can say goodbye to your good life over here…”

Fifteen days later, Raul Garcia was removed from his post. A few months later, Aldo de Jesus Hernandez was dismissed and sent back to Cuba. The reasons? They were corrupt and setting a bad example. Balaguer and Yadira, however, retained their posts – within the Cuban regime, there are levels and then there are levels. Balaguer is one of the regime’s untouchables. We didn’t hear anything from Yadira was dismissed in September 2010 after being implicated in a series of embezzlements and other illegal activities in the basic industry sector.

The Business of La Pradera

The well-known (and questionable) health services agreement between Caracas and Havana contains a clause that has existed since April of 2001: the sending of Venezuelan patients (mainly the poorest) to Cuba, to receive medical attention at the La Pradera International Health Center located in Siboney, Havana, and to other hospitals in the capital that have been equipped for such services.

It was a top priority mission which was overseen every Friday, in the early hours of the morning, by Fidel Castro himself (until stepping down due to illness in 2006). I can offer a detailed testimony of this because I worked in this mission every Friday from 2001 to 2003, and was even entrusted with secret tasks during this time.

To get a sense of the importance of this whole affair, suffice it to know that the Venezuelan patients were transported to Havana in Fidel Castro’s personal plane (flown by his crew).

The patients were selected during field surveys conducted by the medical doctors in each of Venezuela’s municipalities or states. Following this selection process, the patients files were sent to the Miraflores presidential palace for a final assessment and then the patients traveled to Havana.

As in other areas, the more streetwise and business-minded Cubans came along and began to profit from this privileged service Cuba was offering poor Venezuelan patients. That is how seats on these flights to Cuba began to be sold.

Who were making these sales? It wasn’t the doctors out in the field, working hard to overcome many difficulties in Venezuela’s most recondite places. It was those in charge of these missions, those who represented Cuba at Miraflores: Dr. Rafael Garcia Portela, head of the control office responsible for sending Venezuelan patients to La Pradera, and his colleague Frank Diaz, as well as their respective wives.

These white-collar criminals set up their base of operations in Caracas’ presidential palace, selling seats on the Havana-bound plane for US $2,000 and even $3,000. The beneficiaries were the relatives of Venezuelan government officials and the country’s bourgeoisie (from both the Chavista and not-so Chavista camp).

When we came upon these crimes, after going over the clinical histories, names and social strata of the patients, the officials in charge of the investigation almost immediately discovered that they had even used fake names and resorted to unlawful proceedings to carry out the activities.

During a coordination meeting, we sent a report to Hugo Chavez, who immediately consulted with his mentor and the project sponsor, Fidel Castro. Time passed and we saw no measures taken by the government, which failed to explain why some rich people could hop on the plane with tickets sold to them by the criminals at Miraflores.

Chavez’ Father

Officials at La Pradera, corrupt Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) officials and even Central Committee members involved in coordinating these activities were getting a cut out of those US $3,000.

These “bombshells” about the idealized health plan aimed at poor Venezuelans began to go off in Cuba, but Fidel Castro was told a different story and the whole thing was shelved.

Descubierta la malversación, la respuesta me la dio Raúl García, un viejo comunista que fungió por años como Cónsul General de Cuba en Caracas. Estaba yo en la oficina de control de la Embajada cubana y de pronto me llamaron al despacho de Sánchez Otero para llamarme la atención.

I am proud of having fought against the corrupt practices of Cubans in Venezuelans and still bear the burden of the whole affair. One day, while visiting the father of the late Hugo Chavez in his office, when I had a moment alone with him, I told him what was going on inside this health campaign, so that he would tell his son. I told him it wasn’t the poor who were benefitting from the initiative and even gave him a written report.

Fortunately, Hugo de los Reyes Chavez informed his son of this and many of the criminals running Cuba’s medical mission in Venezuela were dismissed. Following the investigation and reports prompted by this, I was able to find out that the business was being run out of the Statistics Department in La Pradera. Lionila Fernandez, the corrupt head of this department, who handled the sales from Havana, can attest to this.

It takes all sorts to make a world. MINSAP has a Collaboration Department responsible for recruiting Cuban doctors, dentists and nurses for work in medical campaigns abroad.

The department has known countless heads, who are replaced with suspicious regularity. The reasons are in plain sight: the business of “selling” positions in medical missions abroad is being operated at the highest spheres of MINSAP. Not all Cuban health professionals have the qualifications needed to work abroad and there are places that are attractive to these professionals, for financial reasons.

I’m going to leave you with a question that may strike some as rather unusual, but I am sure there are many who will not be at all surprised by it: How much does being chosen to work abroad in a Cuban medical mission (for which one was not selected) go for, in dollars? I am sure many of those currently working abroad will be able to answer this.
* Radio journalist and former Cuban intelligence agent (alias “Marcos”). He was recruited by the Cuban Ministry of the Interior in February of 1987 and worked as an agent until his desertion in 2003. He currently resides in Miami.

One thought on “Cuba’s Medical Missions in Venezuela: Hotspot for Corruption

  • I lived in Guyana, Venezuela’s eastern neighbor, up to 1996. Having been a friend and patient of some Cuban doctors serving in Guyana, I have a high regard for Cuba’s internationalist missions.
    Now, reading Uberto Mario’s exposé of corruption by officials managing Cuban doctors and patients in Venezuela, I am truly saddened and disappointed.

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