Above Photo: Charles Edward Miller/Flickr
Days go by and Isabella has no idea that her life depends on colored pills. She is 21 months old and speaks a language that can be understood only by those who spend endless hours with her at the Italian Hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, deciding what color of which pill she should take now.
Isabella was born with a congenital disease. Doctors were very clear from the beginning that she needs a liver transplant to live. Once diagnosed her parents, Douglas and Yelibeth right away started working on finding donors, funding, transplant, where, how and when.
It all seemed to fall into place because Yelibeth was compatible and she became the donor for her daughter, while the complete treatment would be funded by the Simon Bolivar Foundation through the money managed by CITGO, a U.S.-based refiner and subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.
The agreement between Argentina’s Italian Hospital and Venezuela dates back to 2007 and 109 Venezuelan children have received transplants in the southern country to date. They are experts in these kinds of cases and the relationship between the two countries has been successful for 12 years.
Douglas and Yelibeth left all they had in Venezuela, their jobs, their life. They set up in Argentina’s capital city in 2018. Everything was being paid for by the Venezuelan oil, regardless of political swings and market fluctuations. Their other son, Abraham now 12, moved with them and started to study in Buenos Aires. It was the couples attempt to live a normal life amid the bad luck Isabella faced unaware of her colorful pills.
Everything went successfully. On November 26, the liver transplant surgery was performed and Isabella woke up with a bit more of Yelibeth inside her tiny body. She spent a month and a half in the intensive care unit, some problems arose, and subsequent surgeries were needed.
She was finally discharged on January 9, 2019. She left the hospital with the promise of a post-operative period that would not be easy. Her new organ had to adapt to her body and prove that it worked. They had between six months and a year of treatment and trials in front of them. Trial and error and colorful pills.
But politics marks calendars and has little regard for transplants and desires. Then came January 28, when the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced new and more severe sanctions against Venezuela. This time against CITGO, the funding source for diseases suffered by children like Isabella. The United States blocked all its assets.
In total, seven billion dollars today are in an unknown destination out of reach of the Bolivarian government. Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that sanctions would result in the loss of $11 billion more next year for the Venezuelan oil company. CITGO would not disappear, it would continue working in the U.S. but all of its assets would not be paid to Venezuela or foundations like the Simon Bolivar.
That money would be deposited in “a special blocked account to transfer it to a successor Government,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. A new and eventual government headed by Juan Guaido, opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president.
Four months later there is not a successor Government in Venezuela, there are not funds for Isabella either, nor for seven other Venezuelan families who are in Buenos Aires with similar cases.
The money is not arriving and the Italian Hospital cannot do transplants without it. Venezuela’s Embassy to Argentina is helping as much as it can. “The Hospital is housing us while the Embassy is paying maintenance costs, but we do not know how much longer we will be able to put up with this,” Douglas told Sputnik by phone.
He is 34 and had to abandon his job as manager at a Venezuelan company to take exclusive care of his child and all the details involved in her case.
“My daughter needs very delicate check-ups and she needs to complete her treatment. In fact, the liver is right now showing a bit of rejection and that can only be controlled through medicaments.”
Medication that the Simon Bolivar Foundation was supplying until the blockade on CITGO appeared. Isabella needs 16 drugs and each of them costs over $1500 per pack. It is simply impossible for an average family to afford that by themselves. At this point Douglas has the treatment for just one more month.
Then what? “If Isabella can’t finish her treatment, the transplant could be lost and she would have to undergo surgery again,” he says. “We would have to start all over again and it would be more complicated now because my wife cannot be a donor again. We do not have that time.”
The blockade is used in Venezuela as a weapon of war against the people. That’s not new. It’s an old tactic. Those who win the battle in the media will define other realities. A recent report by the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) revealed overwhelming data that the U.S. sanctions and blockade on Venezuela have caused 40,000 deaths in the country since 2017 to the present.
“It has reduced the availability of foods and medicine and it has increased disease and mortality,” reads the report named Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela.
“80,000 people with HIV, 16,000 people with cancer, and 4 million with diabetes and hypertension” are victims of this blockade, described by the report as a “heartless, illegal, and failed policy.”
One of the authors of the report is Jeffrey Sachs, an economist used as a reference by the U.S. media. The CEPR is more than renowned and it is usually quoted by different sources. In this occasion, the hegemonic media is being careful in how to reveal this credible new report. Instead of presenting it in its devastating reality, there is a phrase referencing it here, then another drop there; because “Venezuela is different.”
“From the perspective of human rights, the main obstacle is to ensure that they are respected and guaranteed in Venezuela with the illegal economic and financial blockade imposed by the U.S. Administration,” said Larry Devoe, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Council and state agent for the International Human Rights System.
He is monitoring the case of Isabella, as well as of other families like hers. “In Caracas alone,” he told Sputnik, “there are 12 people who have been identified for a bone marrow transplant. They were about to travel to Italy but they can’t go due to the de facto blockade.”
We have to add here the more well known case of 25 Venezuelan children already in Italy mentioned by Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza in a recent press conference at the United Nations. They are also waiting for a bone marrow transplant that will not take place without the releasing of Venezuela’s stolen funds.
How many cases of Venezuelan children like these are there around the world? How many of them will die while waiting? Some of them have already died in Italy, in Venezuela and in other parts of the world. And the big question is who is to blame for this?
Opponents of the Nicolas Maduro Administration claim that the blockade is not the cause for food and medicine shortages because the crisis existed already before the U.S. sanctions.
But Antony Moreno, physician and spokesperson of the Committee of Patients and Victims of the Financial Blockade, states that this is a great lie.
“We have reviewed the years 2013 and 2015, with Maduro already in power but before the first sanctions, there were about 20 different drugs available for each Venezuelan in the case of any disease. The United Nations has confirmed it and Venezuela managed to meet the Millennium Development Goals,” Moreno told Sputnik by phone interview.
“But it has all changed since the opposition won majority in the National Assembly and requested sanctions against Venezuela,” he stated.
In 2015 when Barack Obama made his infamous executive order declaring Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to U.S. national security, it marked the beginning of this story.”Now, there are only five types of drugs available for each Venezuelan per year,” Moreno says.
He went on to say, “Imagine that. You have nothing. There is a cruel deterioration. I work at an occupational health service and I’ve noticed the difference since 2015.”
Venezuela imports all important medicines, including for cancer treatment, for cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, HIV, etc. There are not Class I laboratories in Venezuela, that is to say, those which manufacture active principle ingredients through raw materials.
Drug products cannot be manufactured in this part of the Caribbean for now. Venezuela has always imported from manufacturers abroad using the money obtained through its oil production. “As that money is blocked,” says the Committee spokesperson, “the medicines cannot be bought and that’s why they are not arriving in the country. It is that simple.”
The situation is unbearable and dramatic. The Committee of Victims is fighting, organizing protests, organizing themselves to distribute the scarce medicine they find or invent. Douglas, Isabella and their family continue their struggle for now thanks to the aid of the Simon Bolivar Foundation and several social movements and organizations that are supporting them in Argentina
“Foreign Minister Arreaza has told us to resist,” Douglas says, “Resist? Until when?”
Douglas does not talk about politics because the situation lived by him and other hundreds like him and his family is not about Chavismo or anti-Chavismo, about Revolution or political marketing.
“The blockade is not a political issue. The blockade is against us. With that blockade they hurt us, and in our case my daughter. They don’t hurt Nicolas Maduro or government employees. I am afraid of what can happen. What will happen if my daughter loses the organ?”