By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- Employees of Barrio Adentro, President Hugo Chávez' network of basic health centers in poorer districts of the country, are up in arms about arrears in payments and welfare benefits, and gathered outside the Labor Ministry to make their point earlier this week. Their protest coincided with a growing wave of signs that funding for some public sector programs is being crimped by the downturn in state revenues induced by the global financial crisis.
The Barrio Adentro workers made no secret of their commitment to the president, claiming that their problems stem from inaction by people further down the chain of command. Posters of the president in trademark red paratrooper beret waved alongside placards demanding "Action Now" as the protesters walked through Plaza O'Leary in downtown Caracas.
Spokesmen for the protesters insisted that they were to be called "socialist medical workers" and some of them seemed almost apologetic about making a fuss. "We're socialists but it has to be said," explained Tony Navas, the head of the union.
They're not only disgruntled about low pay and long overdue food vouchers -- which by law are deemed an "integral" part of an employee's renumeration. They're also angry about "improvisation" in the way Barrio Adentro is being run. Critics have long claimed that the chain of small clinics, some staffed by a single doctor at odd hours, was never properly organized from the start.
The government launched Barrio Adentro earlier this decade as a response to the inadequacy of medical services in poor barrios, arguing that doctors employed in the state health service simply didn't want to work there. While some doctors in private conceded the point, representatives of the profession dismissed this as a slur on their reputations.
All the more controversially, Chávez brought in about 10,000 doctors and other medical staff from Cuba to staff Barrio Adentro. This was officially portrayed as part-payment by the Cubans for oil supplies which the opposition claimed Chávez was giving away for political reasons.
It's said that by no means all of the Cuban doctors stayed with Barrio Adentro -- or even that there were that many real doctors. Unconfirmed reports suggest that as many as half of them used Barrio Adentro as a staging post to a better life, either by setting up in private practice in Venezuela or moving to the United States. In the process, it's claimed, numerous Barrio Adentro posts were abandoned, and several in upland districts of west Caracas have certainly acquired a friendless look.
Underpinning the protest at Barrio Adentro is dissatisfaction at the alleged reluctance of the Health Ministry to press on with negotiations on a new collective bargaining contract. Union spokesmen say these should already have been completed but have barely got off the ground.
"They simply don't turn up," said one irate official to this reporter, referring to negotiators from the ministry. "It's like they want to hang us out to dry, or go away out of exasperation and give up." Well, he added, "I'm certainly not going to go away."
A similar mood appears to prevail among employees at the Education Ministry, who also gathered outside the Labor Ministry on Thursday. They say the ministry's been dragging its feet over their collective bargaining agreement since 2002. The union has fulfilled all the legal steps in the process "but nothing's happened," complained one protester.