Capacho, Venezuela. Since four in the morning people with different ailments, physical disabilities and their family members have been gathering in a small hospital in Táchira, Venezuela, a bordering state with Colombia. Because free mobility between the two countries was severed seven months ago, we are hoping to receive an administrative authorization which will allow us to cross the border in order to buy medication, which has been scarce for months, or to receive critical medical treatment such as dialysis, chemotherapy or major surgeries that are no longer being provided due to, primarily, the lack of medical supplies.
Last January, the newly-elected Venezuelan National Assembly declared a humanitarian crisis in the healthcare sector in response to the “grave scarcity of medication, medical supplies and the deterioration of the humanitarian infrastructure”. The National Assembly requested President Maduro “to guarantee in an immediate manner the access to the list of essential medication that are basic, essential and vital and that should be accessible in any given moment.”
For many of us the prospect of accessing pharmacies in Colombia makes the long wait worth it, after having exhausted all the possibilities in Venezuela. Conversations between family members across the country revolve around what medication could be found and where. Local networks of friends, acquaintances and even old high-school classmates are explored in search of vital medication. In the event that medicines are found in a different part of the country, then another set of hurdles arises. Mailing them is no longer an option as this has been forbidden by the national government; flight and accommodation costs are highly prohibitive and road transportation has to be purchased the day of departure, having to wait in long lines since the early hours of the day. Crossing over to Colombia is our best chance.
Two days later, around 30 people are lining up in the first of two border checkpoints before boarding a bus that will drop us off in the middle of the International Bridge Simón Bolívar in San Antonio del Táchira, the literal spot that divides the two nations. I am hoping to buy medication to treat my mother’s high-blood pressure. This is a highly coveted basic treatment that has been scarce in the country for months due to a combination of heavy price regulation, lack of production and a very high demand.
While waiting in line I meet Gregorio, whose permanent medical condition has left him wheelchair-bound and who is in desperate need to buy colonoscopy bags, syringes and other implements that are essential for his treatment. He is accompanied by his mother, Eugenia, who tells me that her son “has had this since he was a child and we always have been able to get him the treatment that he needs. Now, although the treatment is available in our hometown, the medical staff turned us away because they didn’t have any of the supplies” She adds “this has been happening gradually. At the beginning of last year they didn’t have syringes, then they didn’t have gauze. Now they don’t have anything”
At the second checkpoint, there is a National Guard reviewing the papers of the people traveling for medical reasons. When it is Gregorio and his mother’s turn, the officer carefully reads the authorization, doctor’s report, prescription orders and X-rays. She is about to close the file when she goes back and looks at the doctor’s report again. Suddenly, she says “this is from November 2015. You need to update this information and come back later”. Gregorio and his mother are taken aback and further explain that he urgently needs these supplies and he has been trying to get the medication in Venezuela in the past months. The National Guard swiftly replies “Well, unfortunately, this information is outdated and there is nothing I can do. Next in line!”
When it is my turn I am very nervous. The National Guard checks thoroughly the documentation and at one point she takes out her mobile and starts dialing the phone number on the doctor’s report. After confirming the validity of the information I provided she goes through the papers a couple of more times and takes a look at me and tells me “you need to keep the receipts of the medication you are going to purchase and present them once you are back” and then she signals towards the bus.
Once I arrive in downtown Cúcuta, the epicenter of Southwestern commercial trade between the two countries, I go to the first drugstore I can find. Almost immediately I am perplexed at the amount of products I see stocked in shelves. From powdered milk, toilet paper, to aspirin, elusive products are available in large quantities here. After I ask the attendant for the prices of the medication, she goes to the back of the small store and I overhear her tell her coworker “this is the fourth Venezuelan that has come in today asking for prices just to have them not buy anything.”
When she comes back she tells me all the medication is available and hands me a piece of paper with the prices. Earlier in the morning my mother had given me reference points for the high-blood pressure medication I was to buy. When found each box of pills had an approximate cost of 400 Bolivares back in Venezuela. However, in Colombia each box of 14 to 30 pills is priced 6 to 25 times higher. I leave the store empty-handed.
After four hours of search, having bought just one box of pills and a pack of toilet paper, I decide to return home.
On my way back to Venezuela, I ran into Eugenia, Gregorio’s mother, who was turned down earlier. She was able to cross through an illegal crossing, or “trocha”, which cost her 10,000 Bolivares, Gregorio stayed back in Venezuela. Like me she was unable to buy everything she needed. Just as we are reaching the international bridge she exclaimed “how am I going to look at my son in the face and tell him I didn’t even get half of all the supplies we needed” She added with tears in her eyes, echoing my feelings and those of many Venezuelans desperate to access healthcare for their families, “What are we going to do now?”
Carlos Pérez Rojas.