BOGOTA, Colombia—Ten to 15 times a week, Jorge repackages a stash of bottles and pills and then sends a message to his network of couriers. There’s always someone willing to carry the package to Venezuela tucked into their luggage.
There’s nothing illegal about this trafficking operation—it’s prescription medicine on its way to people who desperately need it. But in Venezuela, where such acts of kindness are often seen as a political statement, Jorge wants to remain anonymous.
“It’s simple,” he said of the secrecy. “If you use my name, the government might accuse me of being a smuggler or a bachaquero”—the price-gougers who are often targeted by the government. “Everything I say can be used against me.”
It’s no secret that Venezuela lacks just about everything. But the shortage of life-saving drugs, even over-the-counter medicine, is, perhaps, the most heartbreaking.
Venezuelans are increasingly dependent on loose networks of people who live abroad, like Jorge, to stay alive.
The Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, an industry group, says more than 85 percent of all drugs are either impossible or difficult to find in the country. While there’s no way to know how many people have died because of a lack of medicine, anecdotal evidence abounds.
In June the family of Susana Duijm—an actress and model who won the Miss World pageant in 1955—took to Twitter and Instagram pleading for blood-pressure medication after she was hospitalized. She died.
In March an 18-year-old girl died of a shellfish allergy after the hospital she was taken to didn’t have epinephrine or oxygen.
Infant mortality increase more than 100 percent between 2012 and 2015, often due to lack of basic medical supplies.
“People here are dying from incredibly stupid ailments,” said Mildred Varela, 45, who has had breast cancer since 2014. For those in need of hard-to-find oncology medicine, stakes are high.
After Varela finished her chemotherapy and radiation treatment last year, she was prescribed letrozole, an inhibitor used to reduce the risk of relapse. But she couldn’t find the medication for three months.
Since then, Varela and 66 other cancer survivors have formed Aconvida, a network that helps its members find medicine either in Venezuela or abroad. The medicine that has been hand-carried from places, like Miami, Madrid and Bogota, has been a literal lifesaver, she said.
“It’s not always the quantity we need and it doesn’t come in with the frequency we need it, but it helps,” she said. The daily pressure of finding medicine is particularly cruel for cancer survivors, who are told to avoid stress during recovery, Varela said.
“How are we supposed to be relaxed in a situation like this? My level of frustration is so high just looking for medicine all the time,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been thrown in the ocean with a stone around my neck.”
The government blames the shortages on such things as “economic warfare” waged by its enemies, and Colombian smugglers.
Health Minister Luisana Melo said this year the problem was that Venezuelans took too much medicine and she asked her countrymen be more “rational” in their health care.
To complicate matters, Venezuela is refusing offers of help, even as the United Nations last month urged Caracas to “consider accepting humanitarian aid.”
The attitude is perplexing. During the height of its oil boom, Venezuela was one of the region’s most generous countries, sending subsidized oil to its allies and providing billions of dollars in in aid and investment to troubled countries in the region.
“The government of Venezuela will not accept that it has a problem,” said Freddy Ceballos, the president of the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, which represents the industry.
Rather than admit that its socialist system is to blame, Venezuela insists that corrupt distributors and shadowy forces are causing the shortages. Ceballos said a combination of draconian price and currency controls have destroyed the industry. The government owes Venezuela’s pharmaceutical sector $5 billion, he said. And without that money, local labs haven’t been able to pay their international suppliers. While Venezuela has 22 pharmaceutical plants, it has to import most of its raw materials, so hard currency is critical.
Hit by falling oil revenue, Venezuela has been forced to reduce its imports. And in a country that produces little else but crude oil, those cuts are reflected in empty shelves and growing hunger and discontent. Even so, the situation in Venezuela is hard to comprehend, Ceballos said.
“No other petroleum-exporting country has hungry people on the street or is denying their people medicine,” he said.
The pharmaceutical sector has been in negotiations since January. And while the administration occasionally releases money, it’s not enough to cover debts or reopen supply lines.
“What we need is a change in attitude,” Ceballos said. “Health can’t wait and every day people are dying.”
It’s that sense of urgency that’s leading people to take the risks of being drug couriers. While it’s not illegal to carry medicine for a specific person, carrying the medicine in bulk—without the approval of Venezuelan authorities—can be problematic. Travelers have reported having suitcases full of medicine confiscated at the airport.
Since last year, the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia has sent more than a ton of donated medicine across the border. Often it goes in dribs and drabs in luggage, but they recently sent 34 boxes packed with medicine. How they got it into Venezuela, which sealed its land-border with Colombia a year ago, they won’t say.
“Because Venezuela denies that it needs anything, there’s always the fear that it could be confiscated,” said the organization’s president, Daniel Pages. “The reality is they need everything from gauze to aspirin to things that are more complicated, like cancer drugs.”
Image credits: Jim Wyss/Miami Herald/TNS