The Doc Project

'I would say I'm a doctor of the resistance' — one Venezuelan refugee's fight for his people

José, a Venezuelan doctor, fled to Canada under the threat of death - all for trying to save the lives of those caught in the crossfire of a country in turmoil.

'José' took to the streets with a first aid kit during violent protests, until he became a target

Anti-government demonstrators wave a Venezuelan flag during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, in August 2017. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

V​enezuela never was the perfect country, but for José, it was the best place to live. He never imagined that one day he would have to escape, leaving everything behind.

José, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a young neurologist from Venezuela. In July 2017, fearing for his life, he fled to Canada, where he had studied 15 years earlier. He has since applied for refugee status.

José's decision to leave Venezuela was a difficult one. He was passionate about his work and his patients. Many suffered from chronic diseases that could be alleviated with the help of a good doctor and adequate medication.But those drugs were no longer available in Venezuela, under the government of Nicolas Maduro.

When oil prices plummeted in 2014, Venezuela, an oil-producing country, headed straight for the worst economic crisis in its history. As inflation rose, hospitals and clinics no longer had access to drugs and medical supplies.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at a news conference in Caracas on Oct. 17, 2017. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

In a 2016 report, Amnesty International wrote that "the government's refusal to allow international aid efforts to address the humanitarian crisis and provide medicine exacerbated the critical health situation."

It also noted that there was an estimated shortage of 75 per cent of high-cost drugs and 90 per cent of essential drugs.

Medical supplies destined for Venezuela, in a secret location in Montreal. (Silvia Guimarey)

"One of my patients died because there was no medication," said José. "As a doctor, not to be able to help her, I was very frustrated."

Treating patients at any cost

Faced with government inaction, José decided to take matters into his own hands. One day, he brought a box of donated drugs to the hospital where he worked. But things did not go as planned. He was refused entry.

Shortly after the incident, José's car was vandalized, and the vandals left a threatening note: The hospital would not let anybody interfere in its business.  

A truck is set ablaze by opposition activists blocking an avenue during a protest in Caracas, on July 18, 2017.

As the situation worsened, thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets, clashing violently with authorities. José joined them, providing first aid to wounded protesters.

"I had a backpack, with a first aid kit, some medicine, and I used to wear a helmet and gas mask," said José. "I gave medical support to the wounded and people intoxicated by tear gas. Among them were seniors, pregnant women, children."

José said that some doctors were detained for providing care to the people on the streets.

My first class in medical school, we swear a Hippocratic Oath, to help the people, and the poorest and the communities. That is what we do. That is not a crime.

José described himself as a "doctor of the resistance."

"The resistance is not a party," he said. "It is people who disagree with the government and they have to resist."

"My first class in medical school, we swear a Hippocratic Oath, to help the people, and the poorest and the communities," said José. "That is what we do. That is not a crime."

'They put a gun to my head'

One day, as a riot was unfolding in front of his apartment block, José rushed onto the street to help.

But before he could do anything, he said he was caught by members of the colectivos, armed groups of civilians, loyal to the regime.

Anti-government protesters work together to aim a giant slingshot at security forces blocking their march from reaching the Supreme Court in Caracas in May 2017. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

"They put a gun to my head," said José. They told me, 'Don't help people, don't mess with us. We know where you live, we know where you work and we are going to kill you.'"

After the warning, José said they let him go. But as he walked away, he said the police stopped him, and took all of his belongings — his wallet, ID and telephone.

"I was shocked, traumatized, I has so much frustration because I was not doing something wrong," he said. "I was trying to help people and be useful, you know, helpful… that is what I love to do."

I was under my bed for almost the whole night. I heard like explosions, people screaming, tear gas the whole night.  

That same night, the building next door to his was raided. "I was hiding, I was under my bed for almost the whole night," recalled José. "I heard, like, explosions, people screaming, tear gas the whole night. I had never seen this before, so much chaos, so much aggression against the people."  

One month after that day, José did the only thing he could think of to keep himself safe. He bought a plane ticket.

But at the airport, the national guard stopped him, searched him, asking him questions.

Police on motorcycles patrol as the Constituent Assembly election was being carried out in Caracas, Venezuela, July 30, 2017. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

"It was very scary," said José. "I thought they were going to take my passport."

Fortunately, José was able to leave. But he still feels guilty for the patients he left behind.

"They deserve help, they deserve someone that take care of them. I might try to help by, you know, making people aware of the the problem."

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of the page.

Sasha Campeau
About the Producer

Born in Ottawa, Sasha Campeau moved to Montreal in 2005 at the age of 22. Not knowing what to do with a bachelor's degree in international development, she started working for an international fireworks competition. Later she studied journalism, joining Radio-Canada as an associate producer in 2009. Sasha's first documentary, about a Canadian Forces veteran who was overcoming her PTSD, aired on The Doc Project last year. This is her second documentary.  

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook.