Yansnier Arias knew it was wrong. It violated the Constitution, not to mention the oath he took as a doctor in Cuba.
He had been sent to Venezuela by the Cuban government, one of thousands of doctors deployed to shore up ties between the two allies and alleviate Venezuela’s collapsing medical system.
But with President Nicolás Maduro’s re-election on the line, not everyone was allowed to be treated, Dr. Arias said.
A 65-year-old patient with heart failure entered his clinic — and urgently needed oxygen, he said. The tanks sat in another room at the ready, he recalled.
But he said his Cuban and Venezuelan superiors told him to use the oxygen as a political weapon instead: Not for medical emergencies that day, but to be doled out closer to the election, part of a national strategy to compel patients to vote for the government.
May 20, 2018, was nearing, he said, and the message was clear: Mr. Maduro needed to win, at any cost.
“There was oxygen, but they didn’t let me use it,” said Dr. Arias, who defected from the Cuban government’s medical program late last year and now lives in Chile. “We had to leave it for the election.”
To maintain their hold over Venezuela, Mr. Maduro and his supporters have often used the nation’s economic collapse to their advantage, dangling food before hungry voters, promising extra subsidies if he won, and demanding that people present identification cards tied to government rations when they came to the polls.
But participants in the schemes say Mr. Maduro and his supporters have deployed another tool as well: Cuba’s international medical corps.
n interviews, 16 members of Cuba’s medical missions to Venezuela — a signature element of relations between the two countries — described a system of deliberate political manipulation in which their services were wielded to secure votes for the governing Socialist Party, often through coercion.
Many tactics were used, they said, from simple reminders to vote for the government to denying treatment for opposition supporters with life-threatening ailments.
The Cuban doctors said they were ordered to go door-to-door in impoverished neighborhoods, offering medicine and warning residents that they would be cut off from medical services if they did not vote for Mr. Maduro or his candidates.
Many said their superiors directed them to issue the same threats during closed-door consultations with patients seeking treatment for chronic diseases.
One former Cuban supervisor said that she and other foreign medical workers were given counterfeit identification cards to vote in an election. Another doctor said she and others were told to give precise voting instructions to elderly patients, whose infirmities made them particularly easy to manipulate.
“These are the kinds of things you should never do in your life,” said the doctor. Like several others, she spoke on the condition of anonymity because she and her relatives could face retaliation by the Cuban or Venezuelan authorities.