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Cuban doctors dispatched to Venezuela as part of Cuba’s mission to help the South American nation’s medical needs were pressed by the host government to tie crucial treatments and medication to a patient’s promise to vote for President Nicolas Maduro and his candidates in last year’s elections, according to The New York Times.
The Times reported that in interviews, 16 doctors involved in Cuba’s medical missions said they were pressured to do such things as deny treatment to patients who supported Maduro’s political opponents and to go door-to-door in poor areas and offer medicine and treatment to those who voted for the socialist leader.
One doctor described how he was told not to treat a 65-year-old patient who sought emergency care because of heart failure because the oxygen tanks needed to respond to his condition were being saved for manipulating would-be voters closer to the election.
“These are the kinds of things you should never do in your life,” said one Cuban doctor who requested anonymity.
Others expressed similar frustration and outrage over being coerced to handle people in dire need of medicine and treatment in a way that went against everything they had been taught in their medical training.
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Some of the doctors, such as Dr. Carlos Ramírez, a dental surgeon, grew so disgusted they defected when they had the chance.
Ramirez at first relished providing medical care in a nation where the system was in chaos.
But then his job changed to include strong-arming patients into supporting Maduro and his candidates, he told the Times. They were told to focus on the most vulnerable patients, such as the elderly or people with chronic conditions.
“You arrived with vitamins and some pills for blood pressure," said Ramírez, who defected to Ecuador. “And when you started to gain their trust, you started the questions: ‘Do you know where your voting place is? Are you going to vote?’ ”
Venezuelan and Cuban authorities, who had a vested interest in seeing Maduro win and socialism continue in Venezuela, told the Cuban doctors to scare patients by telling them that if Maduro lost, relations between Cuba and Venezuela would end and the imported doctors would be removed from the country.
“With [late President Hugo] Chavez it had been hard, but with Maduro, starting in 2013, it was worse,” another Cuban doctor told the paper.“It became a form of blackmail: ‘You’re not going to have medicine. You’re not going to have free health care. You’re not going to have prenatal care if you’re a pregnant woman.’ ”
Venezuelan authorities kept close watch over the Cuban doctors to ensure they were complying with the mandate, the Times reported.
The re-election of Maduro last May was dogged by reports of fraud. His political opponents and many foreign nations consider the election illegitimate because popular opponents were banned from running and the largest anti-government parties boycotted the race.
Maduro, a 56-year-old former bus driver and Chavez’s hand-picked successor, took the helm of government after narrowly winning election following Chavez’s 2013 death. He denies being a dictator and often accuses President Donald Trump of leading an economic war against Venezuela that is destroying the country.
When Maduro began his second six-year term in January, Venezuela's Congress, controlled by Maduro’s opposition, declared its head, Juan Guaidó, the country’s legitimate president and declared the 2018 election a sham.
The Times said the Venezuelan government refused to respond for the story. The Cuban government defended its medical mission in Venezuela as one that upholds high standards that have made its doctors valuable in areas such as Africa, Latin America and Haiti.
“The historical impact of that cooperation in Venezuela has been reflected in the 1,473,117 human lives that have been saved,” the Cuban government said, according to The Times.
Some doctors said the practice of using them as a way to threaten Venezuelans into voting for Maduro began as far back as the 2013 election, and grew worse last year, when opposition to the president was more intense.
Cuban doctors said they even were given fake identification and told to cast votes for Maduro.
“I asked myself, ‘Why is a physician, someone who is meant to be on a humanitarian mission, having a part in who wins an election?’” said one of the doctors, according to The Times. “This is called tampering. There is no other word for it.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.