Venezuela's Malignant Health Care Crisis

April 26, 2016

Venezuela has long been labeled the rebel in Latin America, holding on to a socialist identity since Hugo Chávez first brought his social revolution to fruition in the country. Part of this social revolution was providing poor Venezuelans with social services, namely health care. Though a popular idea, Venezuela has never truly been able to maintain the necessary resources and services to create an effective health care system. As a result, tens of thousands of citizens lack access to health care, medicine, and life-saving treatments. Venezuela’s health care system is terminally ill and it is the people of Venezuela that are suffering. Consequently, they are demanding a new treatment, one that involves bringing the opposition to power.  

Launched in 2003 and cheered by the people, Mission Barrio Adentro was intended to provide free comprehensive health care services to all Venezuelans. Since its conception, Mission Barrio Adentro has relied heavily on Cuban provision of doctors, medical technology, and medical supplies and treatments, all in exchange for Venezuela's golden resource: oil. Oil, due to the global drop in prices, has been unable to sustain the Venezuelan economy and social programs. Venezuela's economy is hemorrhaging, and with it, the ability of the government to provide social services has crumbled. Inflation has risen 159% and it is expected to rise 204% by next year (Gillespie 2015). Economic woes have directly contributed to the health care crisis.   

With the global decline in oil prices and a trend of Cuban doctors defecting to the United States out of Venezuela, the country is in serious trouble. Mission Barrio Adentro has struggled to provide the necessary services for years. Venezuela's health care crisis is directly related to its economic one. The government controls all of the money needed to supply the program, and in recent years it has not provided the program with the cash necessary to buy medicines and medical supplies, upgrade technology, and keep clinics and hospitals operational. As a result, thousands of people are being turned away from hospitals and clinics. There is a shortage of almost every medical supply and medicine. At least 70 percent of radiotherapy machines are no longer functioning; of the 100 fully functioning public hospitals in 2013, nine in 10 had just 7 percent of the supplies they needed; 60 percent of routinely stocked medicines or medical supplies were entirely or partially unavailable in hospitals and clinics in 2014; and as of 2014, public hospitals had a surgery wait-list of about 20,000 patients (Lohman 2015 and Bajak 2013). Doctors are forced to reuse disposable medical supplies in order to meet basic needs.Mosquito-transmitted viral diseases have sharply increased due to a lack of treatment and services. HIV/AIDS patients, about 50,000 of them, have faced a shortage in their retrovirals (Fox News Latino 2014). Birth control and condoms are in short supply, with a box of condoms costing about $750 US dollars. These three issues alone have the potential to create public health crises and the spread of disease (Romo 2015).

Discontent is the new language being spoken in Venezuela. In 2014, street protesters clashed with police after a march protesting the country’s shortage of medicines. The country has attempted to squash any and all dissent, prohibiting street protesting and meeting protests with violence. Doctors that have spoken out against the crisis have been detained and interrogated. Two directors of a major pharmacy chain were detained and interrogated for 45 days because they were unable to provide medicines and had long lines at their pharmacies (Lohman 2015). . The Maduro government is doing everything to deflect blame and silence dissent.

The increasingly common picture of Venezuela is one of long lines and shortages of everything from toilet paper and food to medicine and surgery. A government that is unable to provide for its citizens cannot last. Change has swept through Venezuela with the December elections that gave the opposition, the Democratic Unity party, a supermajority. While it is unclear how this change will alter Venezuela’s economic policies, as the Democratic Unity has yet to propose any specific plans for the economy, it is an indication that the country wants change. Venezuelans lined up to vote in the hope that they could stop lining up for medicines and surgeries.


Bajak, Frank. “Doctors Say Venezuela’s Health Care in Collapse.” Associated Press. 6 Nov. 2013.;_ylt=A0LEVriQpmlWh8AAPeInnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTByNXM5bzY5BGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMzBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzcg--

Gillespie, Patrick. “Venezuela’s Elections: Turning Point for World’s Worst Economy?.” CNN Money. 7 Dec. 2015.

Lohman, Diederik. “Venezuelans Can’t Get Even the Most Basic Lifesaving Medical Supplies.” The Washington Post. 29 April 2015.

Romo, Rafael. “$755 for a Box of Condoms? No Protection from Shortages in Venezuela.” CNN. 6 Feb. 2015.

Venezuela Faces Health Crisis Amid Shortage of HIV/Aids Medication.” Fox News Latino. 14 May 2014.

About Author(s)

Hilary Heath's picture
Hilary Heath
Hilary Heath is a second year candidate for a Master of International Development at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at Pitt where she is studying Human Security. She currently works as a graduate student intern for Panoramas and is obtaining a certificate at the Center for Latin American Studies.