Venezuelan health care workers protest low wages

Amid crisis in healthcare, experienced nurse faces tough economy

By Cody Weddle

CARACAS - Gladys Rosales recently joined a protest in downtown Caracas. The nurse marched with colleagues, doctors and other employees in the healthcare field who are demanding better wages. 

Rosales has 34 years of experience, yet she only earns about 50,000 bolivares a month -- that is roughly $71 at the highest exchange rate, but only $16 at the black market rate. She is earning less than what most cab drivers make.

The Bolivarian Socialist administration hasn't been able to keep up with their promise to improve healthcare -- instead they are facing a collapse of the public health system. The low pay comes amid a devastating economic downturn that is causing shortages of medical supplies and basic goods.  

"Before our salaries covered the basic things we needed," Rosales said. "The salary is pretty depressing. It’s not enough. We have to look for other jobs to get by."

Hundreds in the same predicament participated in the protest that doctors and medical unions organized. The were marching to submit a petition to the legislature to demand better wages. But officers with the Venezuelan National Guard blocked the protesters from advancing more than a few blocks.

Doctors have reported that diseases like diphtheria, which was eradicated decades ago, were making a comeback. The Universidad Central de Venezuela's health observatory estimates that 81 percent of hospitals are lacking basic surgical materials. 

Psychiatrists report having to use sedatives to deal with mental health issues that require psych drugs.  Nurses report having to reuse surgical gloves. In Miami, expatriates who are sending medical supplies report they are having to deal with Venezuelan authorities sometimes blocking the boxes from entering the country. 

In 2013, doctors not allied with the government said many patients began dying from easily treatable illnesses when Venezuela's downward economic slide accelerated after Hugo Chavez's death from cancer. 

The country's 1999 constitution guarantees free universal health care to Venezuelans, who sit on the world's largest proven oil reserves. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro insists his administration is complying.

"I doubt there is anywhere in the world -- with the exception of Cuba -- where there is a better health system than this one," Maduro said last year during a speech. 

Meanwhile, officers with the National Guard used riot gear to block protesters from marching to the legislature.

"The national government is scared of street protests," Caracas Nursing School President Anna Rosales Contreras said.  "That’s why they suppress these marches. We are only speaking out against situations that put our people’s health at risk."

Local 10 News' Andrea Torres contributed to this story. 

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