Venezuelan med students face rotting cadavers as failing socialist economy ruins public university system

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MERIDA, Venezuela — The air reeks of rotting cadavers in the anatomy lab at the University of Los Andes (ULA). Bodies decompose quickly here, because the university cannot afford to buy enough formaldehyde to keep them preserved.

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“How can we learn from this?” medical student Mina D’Ambrosio says as she gives me a tour of her school.

She points to a dirty sink that contains a barely recognizable foot, and a brown lump of human tissue that could have been a liver. The rapidly decomposing body parts make it harder for students to identify vessels, small ligaments and other parts of the body as they would appear on a living patient. It makes learning difficult, and poses a health risk to students.

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“Your defenses need to be high when you come in this room,” D’Ambrosio jokes.

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Formaldehyde is just one of the hundreds of supplies missing at ULA, where dental students sometimes have no paper bibs for their drooling patients, and art students must limit the number of paintings they make each semester because canvases and acrylic paints have become preclusively expensive.

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Exchange controls and the recent collapse of the country’s currency have made it extremely difficult for Venezuelan universities to purchase supplies from abroad.

With the world’s highest inflation rate gobbling up budgets, and a government that's unwilling or unable to allocate more funding, public universities like ULA have become one of the worst victims of Venezuela’s economic crisis.

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“The government has to do something about this,” says student leader Nelson Venot. “These are the places where future generations of professionals are trained.”

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The University of Los Andes offers 35 majors to 50,000 undergraduate students, each of whom pays less than $5 in tuition each semester.

Thanks to ULA's large size and research capabilities, the university has been a major player in the development of Western Venezuela over the past century. It’s cheap tuition rates and scholarship programs financed by the country’s oil revenues have facilitated social mobility in this part of Venezuela, by making a college degree affordable to thousands of people.

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But the collapse of oil prices and the mismanagement of the country’s oil resources is slowly ruining the quality of education here. The problems are widespread in all the university's schools across Merida.

In the dental school, for example, work stations filled with dozens of dental chairs sit empty as the staff who run these facilities strike for better wages.

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Edwin Lobo, a fourth year dental student, says the employee strikes have forced him to miss six out of his last eight practice sessions at the operational dentistry clinic. Now he's not sure he’ll have enough time to fulfill the requirements for one of his main classes.

“If we can’t work at the clinic, we have no patients, and we can’t fulfill requirements to graduate” Lobo says. “On top of that we’re missing resins, amalgams, cotton rolls and even napkins, which we end up having to buy ourselves,” he says of the supplies needed to make fillings for cavities.

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Lobo says that at one of the university’s main dental clinics 24 out of 26 dental chairs are not functioning properly. That means patients must sometimes be switched from one chair to another in the middle of a procedure as lamps and water picks fail.

“It can be very frustrating, especially when you can’t work cause the clinic is closed,” Lobo said. “Some students get tired of this and end up quitting the program.”

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In the art faculty, students taking sculpture classes have to do without clay and plaster, two basic items which have become expensive and difficult to find in Merida.

“Sometimes we have to skip some basic classes due to the lack of resources,” says professor Albeiro Sanchez.  “But we’ve also learned to work better with contemporary materials.”

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Sanchez says students have learned how to make sculptures with discarded plastics and cardboard boxes. They use seeds to give their sculptures texture and substitute clay with a paste made from shredded newspapers.

Jose Anderes, a university dean, says the lack of supplies is not the only problem that ULA faces. He says professors are leaving the university en masse and moving to other countries as the government balks on salary increases and inflation reduces their earnings to an unlivable wage.

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“Over the past three years, more than 600 professors have resigned,” says Anderes, whose post is roughly equivalent to Dean of Students.

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The Venezuelan government currently pays tenured professors 15,000 bolivares a month, or approximately $2,500 if the amount is calculated at the government’s official exchange rate. But at the black market exchange rate, which is more frequently used in the streets, an experienced professor earns about  $40 a month, or just $1.30 a day.

That means a professor can spend half his daily salary just to buy a cheap lunch.

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“It’s a ridiculous situation,” says Anderes, who has been working at ULA since the late '70s.

“The most talented and experienced people are leaving to places like Ecuador, where they get offered up to $5,000 a month. And we have to replace them with new professors who don’t have as much experience.”

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Anderes says Venezuela’s macroeconomic collapse has played a major role in ULA’s recent difficulties, but he also accuses the government of trying to starve the university of funds as punishment for students' and professors' repeated criticism of Venezuela’s socialist revolution.

Over the past three years, university officials have received only around 30 percent of the budget they request each year. Though the central government has allocated the ULA a 25 percent increase in funds since since 2013, it hasn't been enough to keep up with inflation as prices have soared by more than 100 percent.

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Some academics think the school is being starved on purpose.

“They are trying to tire out the administrators, so that we leave our posts,” Anderes charged.

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A 2009 education law allows the government to replace university officials who quit their posts with its own appointees, so if officials like Anderes resign they can be easily replaced with party loyalists. The government is also trying to implement new measures that would eliminate university entrance exams and give the state more control over who gets in.

“Sometimes it feels like we're in a horror film,” Anderes laments.

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The government says it's not undermining the universities, only trying to make higher education more accessible to the poor. Since 2003, Venezuela’s government has created a network of 15 new colleges known as the “Bolivarian” university network to increase access to higher education.

But administrators at ULA complain that the Bolivarian network is syphoning money that would otherwise go to autonomous public universities. Anderes says that professors in the Bolivarian system are handpicked by the government, and not selected based on their academic merits.

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“They are trying to create a parallel education system that responds to their interests,” Anderes said.

Brain Drain

As the debate over funding rages on, many students are finding that they don’t even want to stay in Venezuela once they graduate.

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Marcel Mendez, a robust rugby player who’s in the final year of an accounting degree, is already applying for a work visa in Chile. If he moves there he’ll have to study part time for an extra year just to validate his Venezuelan diploma, but he says it’s worth it.

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“I’ve looked at some job postings and it looks like I can make around $950 a month as an accounting assistant while I’m studying there,” Mendez said. “Once I’ve validated my degree that can go up to $1,600 a month.”

That’s a fortune in Venezuela, where companies are offering recent accounting graduates salaries of 8,000 bolivares, or about $21 a month at the black market exchange rate.

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“Wherever I am, there will always be some uncertainty over what will happen or how I will get a job,” Mendez said. “But why not try things out in a place where you don’t have to worry about the economy collapsing, or about your personal security?”

Dean Anderes says that every week hundreds of students visit his office to get their diplomas validated for international use. For each student, the dean must sign a blue form stamped with the university seal, indicating they have successfully completed their studies at ULA.

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“Here are the papers I got in just four hours,” he says, pointing at a big stack of some 80 forms piled on his desk.

Anderes says the number of blue forms he’s had to sign has quintupled over the past year. “In the first four months of this year I’ve had to sign around 5,000 of these” he says.

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Not everyone wants to leave. Mina D’Ambrosio, the medical student who took me on a tour of the anatomy lab, says she’ll stay in Venezuela as long as she can afford to. But it’s a struggle. Her rent costs nearly the equivalent of a monthly minimum wage, and at the medical school supplies like alcohol and cotton are becoming increasingly scarce. Even exam booklets are hard to come by.

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“In anatomy classes, professors have switched us from written to oral tests because there’s not enough paper for everyone,” D’Ambrosio says.

Still, D’Ambrosio wants to do her part to make Venezuela a better place. And she thinks it would be an “injustice” for her to get free medical training in Venezuela and then go work for another country’s health system.

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“It would be quite easy, and certainly very lucrative to leave,” D’Ambrosio says. “But I want to resist as much as I can. I was born in this country and I have a big debt with it.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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