May 12, 2008
Since arriving in mid-2005 from Cuba, Marta H. felt very welcome in the small locality of western Venezuela where she and four other comrades were sent by the Barrio Adentro health program sponsored by the Cuban and Venezuelan governments.
Between appointments at the health center, Marta and her friends quickly learned the benefits of living in a nation with economic freedom, noting especially the culture of consumerism of Venezuelans.
''People are very open and hospitable like in Cuba,'' Marta told El Nuevo Herald during an interview in which she asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. ``I have learned many things about how people live here, and of their desire to live in freedom.''
A health professional, Marta is from the Cuban province of Matanzas.
The pressure and strict supervision that Cuban leadership exerts over the doctors, nurses and therapists sent to Venezuela from the island is constant.
Yet, far from their assigned mission when they began arriving in 2003, the main concern for many Cuban health professionals in Venezuela has become obtaining as many goods as possible, especially electronics, personal hygiene products and even canned foods that can be taken back to Cuba.
The fever of consumerism has even reached officials of the Cuban Embassy in Venezuela, who take maximum advantage of their time in Caracas to fill the sea-freight containers they are authorized to ship back to Cuba.
Thanks to the agreements between the Cuban and Venezuelan governments, Cuban citizens working with the ''Bolivarian'' assistance programs are permitted to return to the island with a wide list of electronics and grocery items.
The sea-freight shipments have become in themselves a major incentive for Cuban professionals enrolled in the assistance programs.
Marta says that her most memorable experience, besides trying a chicken breast for the first time and being able to drink soft-drinks every day, was the day she purchased her first new refrigerator and microwave oven; thanks to her scrupulous management of her $200 monthly salary.
The ''Venezuelazation'' of Cubans brought to the country by the administration of President Hugo Chávez has produced a cultural shock and has become a phenomenon that could have lasting repercussions for Cuba's future, according to analysts and observers.
Though it is not the first time that ''internationalist'' Cubans have lived and worked in other countries, such as Angola, Mozambique and Nicaragua, the Cuban presence in Venezuela has never been so large; especially since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
The adoption of a Venezuelan lifestyle by the Cuban health professionals ''is a phenomenon that we see continually,'' said Julio César Alfonso, president of the Solidaridad Sin Fronteras -- Solidarity Without Borders -- an organization that helps Cuban medical professionals to defect from Venezuela.