When Venezuela President Hugo Chávez left his country to begin his cancer treatment in Cuba, he left a heath care system roiled by conflict in his wake. 

Since June 30, Venezuela’s public hospital doctors have been on strike. Their grievances include low salaries and difficult working conditions at public hospitals.

Venezuelan Federation of Medical Doctors, which is leading the strike, claims that almost 90 percent of the medical community is adhering to the strike and that only pre-scheduled appointments and a few minor surgeries are taking place in hospitals across the country.  

Douglas León Natera, the federation president, points out that doctors working in Venezuela’s state hospitals have one of the world’s lowest pay scales, earning $535 a month, and even less, $466 a month, in military hospitals. 

Natera also complains of the growing government reliance on Cuban doctors and alleges that striking doctors have been attacked by groups sponsored by the Venezuelan government.

An ailing Chávez, in a TV address before leaving for Cuba, promised the doctors a 30 percent salary hike, and Health Secretary Eugenia Sader has promised that it will take effect by the next pay period. 

Sader cites the substantial increase as evidence of the government’s commitment to health care and dismisses the strikers as a “small group of rebellious doctors.”

Natera and the striking doctors rejected Chávez’s TV raise as inadequate, and hotly denied Sader’s characterization of the strikers as a “small” group.

But Natera is realistic as to the possible outcomes of the doctors’ action. When asked what would happen if the strike doesn’t work, Venezuelan Federation of Medical Doctors said, “We still don’t know, but we will keep fighting for our rights.”

Jennifer Barreto-Leyva is a freelance journalist in Venezuela.

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