Aid workers toil amid crisis and corruption to give Venezuelans the drugs they need

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Global development

In Venezuela, hospitals lack the basics and medicine shortages are common, forcing humanitarian groups to pick up the slack

Bare shelves are a common sight in Caracas’s pharmacies. Nicolás Maduro, the president, continues to downplay the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
Photograph: Noel West/Reuters

Feliciano Reyna masterminds a drug running network that spans Venezuela. His organisation moves substances through ports, trucks them across the country, and deliver them into customers’ hands. But he is not on any DEA watchlist.
“I am the biggest dealer in Venezuela,” says Reyna – though he is quick to qualify the remark – “If we’re talking about legal drugs.”
Acción Solidaria, the foundation Reyna heads, started as a centre for people living with HIV in 1995, but has since become the headquarters of a nationwide humanitarian effort to distribute medicines otherwise unavailable in the crisis-ridden country. In contrast to the bare shelves of pharmacies across Caracas, Reyna’s stockroom in the Venezuelan capital is full of antibiotics, cancer treatments and everyday painkillers.
Hyperinflation sits at an annual rate of 10,398%, according to a Forbes analyst, while shortages of food staples and medicines are commonplace. Over 4 million people have now fled, the United Nations’ refugee agency reports.
Meanwhile, the country’s health system is a husk of what it once was. Hospitals often lack basic supplies – from soap to latex gloves – while frequent power outages leave staff pumping incubators for newborns by hand. Many doctors have left the system altogether, seeking work abroad where pay is more reliable.
President Nicolás Maduro continues to downplay the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, often blaming the country’s hardships on external forces such as US sanctions that target senior officials.
An embargo leveled by the US last August prohibited Venezuelan transactions with US citizens and businesses, further widening the rift between the two countries and worrying observers that the move could deepen the suffering of Venezuelans.
“The sanctions are extremely broad and fail to contain sufficient measures to mitigate their impact on the most vulnerable sectors of the population,” the UN’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said at the time.
Some accounts used by aid organisations – including the Pan American Health Organisation – have been blocked due to the embargo.
The sanctions came five months after Maduro announced that he would allow international aid to enter the country, overseen by the Red Cross.
While that move earned him a brief respite from international criticism, it ultimately put him in a bind. Opening the country up to outside observers – essential to a large-scale distribution operation – would shed a light on the criminality and corruption that permeates Venezuela’s own aid network, much of which is overseen by the military.

Feliciano Reyna: ‘I am the biggest dealer in Venezuela, if we’re talking about legal drugs.’ Photograph: Joe Parkin Daniels
So in reality, aid shipments have been slow to arrive and are not nearly enough to serve the estimated 7 million people in need of humanitarian aid.
“We are simply not seeing the major opening of a humanitarian corridor,” Reyna said. “There is not the capacity, and that costs lives, causes suffering, and means that many more will be forced to flee Venezuela.”
The slack is being picked up by organisations like Acción Solidaria, and Aid for Life, another distribution network run from New York by Jesús Aguais. It too started out as an organisation that brought anti-retroviral treatments to people living with HIV/Aids.
“Our philosophy is to save one life at a time,” Aguaís said. “But we are working within a corruption-ridden country.”
Shipments of the drugs, which are legal, are often subject to extortion from Venezuela’s national guardsman, who control the highways. “It doesn’t matter how many papers our drivers show them, they have to pay up, and that’s just normal now.”
Back in Caracas, Acción Solidaria’s waiting room begins to bustle amid the morning rush for medications. Chrismar Londaiz, a transgender woman living with HIV who works with the organization, is frantically sorting through patient requests.
“Like myself, a lot of these people here have little recourse to support themselves or get the drugs they need,” she said.
Donors as far away as Miami and Madrid gather medicines and stockpile them in a port. Reyna, a former architect then has them shipped to the centre in Caracas, where people show a prescription to pick up whatever they need. A network of other humanitarian organisations across the country send representatives to pick up their supplies.
More than 2,000 people receive medications in Caracas every month at the centre, while another 12,000 are served nationwide. In 2018, more than 93 tonnes of medicine were brought into the country, while Acción Solidaria’s in-house call centre took over 1,500 calls for medicines a month in the last half of 2018.
One of those beneficiaries is Elizabeth Rivas, a pensioner who never knows if pharmacies will stock the losartan tablets she takes to treat her hypertension, or if they will be prohibitively pricey. She can pick up her medication free at Acción Solidaria, so long as she shows her prescription.
“It’s unbelievable how this government has degraded life,” she said. “I have a friend in Vietnam who sends me some medicines … if she stops sending them and they don’t have them here, then I can’t take them and I may die.”


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This post was originally posted on Venezuela | The Guardian – View Original Article

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