Cuba’s Medical Missions in Venezuela – Hotspot for Corruption
Cuba’s Medical Missions in Venezuela: Hotspot for Corruption
October 1, 2013
Uberto Mario* (Cafe Fuerte)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Source: “Cuba’s Medical Missions in Venezuela: Hotspot for Corruption” –