Sacked Cartoonist Sparks Debate on Censorship, Healthcare in Venezuela

The firing last month of a Venezuelan newspaper cartoonist over a piece of healthcare satire has sparked an ongoing debate regarding censorship in the country.“We’re sorry that [Rayma] is no longer with us and we see [her firing] as one of the major costs that the new ownership is paying for trying to adapt to an editorial line favorable to the government,” read a statement released by the editorial page staff of El Universal.

The 105-year-old publication has long presented an opposition voice critical of the socialist government. But since its acquisition in July by parties aligned with Chavista interests, numerous columnists have left the newspaper.

For the Sept. 17 issue of El Universal, Suprani created a political cartoon combining two touchy issues: the continuing legacy of the late Hugo Chavez under the leadership of President Nicolas Maduro, and the worrisome state of the nation’s healthcare system.

In the cartoon, a normal electrocardiogram is shown under the heading “Health.” Under the heading “Health in Venezuala,” however, the signature of former President Chavez merges with the flat line indicating a loss of heartbeat.

State of Health in Venezuela
Chavez supporters say that he transformed the nation’s healthcare system for the better, offering popular programs such as Mission Barrio Adentro (“Inside the Neighborhood”). The initiative established small health and dental clinics offering free treatment provided by Cuban medical staff and was aimed at improving care for poor or marginalized groups.

However, medical professionals say many of the Barrio Adentro modules have been left unfinished or even abandoned.

Those who oppose Chavez and his legacy often acknowledge certain welfare advances under socialist leadership, but are scathing regarding shortages of medicine and medical equipment in the midst of Venezuela’s economic crisis.

The quality of Venezuelan healthcare, some say, was once the most advanced in Latin America, but has declined sharply since the 1980s. The economic pressures and protests that dominated the country in the first half of 2014 caused the medical situation to further deteriorate.

Tensions are exacerbated by marked class divides in the nation.

Wealthy Venezuelans and expatriates with private insurance receive care comparable to that offered in Western Europe or the United States. In fact, there is a growing industry of dental tourism, in which Americans travel to Venezuela to receive cosmetic dentistry procedures at much lower costs than in their home country.

Meanwhile, the poor rely on outdated health and dental facilities. The effects of this neglect, particularly on children, can follow patients throughout their lives. For example, common health procedures for adolescents such as orthodontic care can prevent severe periodontal problems and even premature tooth loss as adults.

But Suprani said healthcare isn’t the only area where the Venezuelan government under Maduro has become increasingly intolerant of opposition voices.

“My immediate boss called me and told me he didn’t like my caricature and I was out,” she told a local radio station soon after she was fired. “We’ve become a country where if you say things, have your own criteria and try to provoke reflection, it’s not well viewed.”