SEATTLE, Washington — Latin America has a history of not extending basic services to the indigenous communities that many countries have pushed to the fringes. To this day, indigenous communities lack access to essential services, especially healthcare. The reasons behind this absence vary from the notion that indigenous communities wish to remain distanced from modern societies to systemic issues of racism and prejudice against indigenous peoples.
Barriers to Healthcare
In 2015, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean found that infant mortality was 60% greater in indigenous groups than non-indigenous groups. According to the advocacy group Minority Rights Group International, discrimination is the biggest barrier for indigenous groups in Latin America to access healthcare services.
Another barrier is the complete absence of infrastructure to provide care or transportation to care. While history and tradition often mark the remoteness of these communities, government decrees and capitalist pursuits are also to blame for the separation between infrastructure and indigenous communities. For example, Nicolás Maduro, a Venezuelan politician whose presidency is under review for his human rights violations, recently reserved 42,250 square miles of indigenous people’s land for mining purposes in Venezuela. The region “coincides with the lands of the Hoti, one of the three ethnic groups the government recognizes as “isolated indigenous groups.”
For some especially isolated communities, the treks they have to endure are treacherous. As one writer described it, “To get to the home of the Hoti, or Jödi, an isolated indigenous people who live in the Maigualida mountains between the states of Amazonas and Bolívar in southern Venezuela, one must travel hours through hundreds of kilometers of thick virgin forest.” And, in the middle of these treks, hides the threats of hidden guerrilla groups.
Past Diseases, New Outbreaks
Clearly, accessing healthcare is a much more difficult task for indigenous communities in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government’s indifferent response has facilitated the return of diseases previously eradicated in the country. The Americas had been deemed Measles-free in 2016. By 2019, measles claimed the lives of 84 Venezuelans from 7,054 confirmed cases. The Pan American Health Organization did a closer study and found 513 confirmed cases in 2018 in Venezuelan indigenous communities. Those cases resulted in 62 deaths.
Besides measles, malaria has been another illness threatening indigenous lives. One recent study attributes the uptick in malaria to the “worsening of the economic and political crisis.” Venezuela accounted for 51% of all cases of malaria in South America.
The public health of Venezuelan indigenous communities is also a result of the general decline in Venezuelan health. According to the Global Health Security Index, Venezuela was the least prepared country in Latin America and the Caribbean to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Maduro regime’s official reports are highly unreliable, so it is difficult to assess the pandemic’s health impact on indigenous peoples in Venezuela.
Professional Medicine’s Dedication to All Venezuelans
While the outlook of indigenous public health in Venezuela may seem bleak, the professional medical field in Venezuela is dedicated to treating everyone within the nation’s borders. A group of medical professionals from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, set up Fundacion NaWaraos in 2016 to become a part of the solution.
Fundación NaWaraos is a nonprofit that provides medical services to the indigenous communities of the Venezuelan Waraos in the northeast region of the country. Dr. Alicia Kompalic, a now-retired doctor and professor from Barqusimeto’s Universidad Ceontrooccidental Lisandro Alvarado (UCLA), studied and worked alongside many current volunteers NaWaraos. She shared her knowledge of the organization with The Borgen Project.
In her interview, Dr. Kompalic discussed the dedication of Venezuelan doctors. “It’s in the genetic formation of Venezuelan doctors to help the most vulnerable,” said Dr. Kompalic. She backed up her statement by noting that one of the requirements for her degree was to spend a full semester in her final year working in rural settings. Upon earning their medical degrees, doctors are also encouraged to spend another year working in rural areas at public institutions.
The organization provides an extensive list of medical care, from dental work to immunizations to bioanalysis for detecting parasitical organisms that are so common in the tropical regions of Latin America. Yet, the commitment of Fundación NaWaraos shows not in its services but in its travels. Mainly comprised of professionals from one of Venezuela’s biggest cities, volunteers in Fundación NaWaraos live far from their patients. To reach their indigenous patients, they must charter buses and planes to fit full medical teams and the lab equipment required to provide care.
Before the complete collapse of medicine in the country, Venezuela’s medical institutions worked harmoniously within the confines of free and private healthcare. The best doctors were not necessarily those with a private practice but those at public hospitals. Providing excellent care for the most vulnerable is indeed in the very essence of Venezuelan medical practice, which makes an organization like Fundación NaWaraos work.
– Luis Gonzalez Kompalic