An antigovernment protest was well under way on a recent afternoon in Caracas when suddenly, the chanting stopped and a hush fell over the crowd. Protesters dressed in white and carrying the Venezuelan flag slowly started clapping, and cheering, as a small group of volunteers wearing scrubs and white helmets with green crosses emerged from the crowd.
“Courageous,” yelled one person. “God bless you guys,” called another.
Meet the Primeros Auxilios UCV, or the first responders of the Central University of Venezuela, a volunteer first aid group made up of medical students and recent graduates who are working to keep Venezuelans safe as increasingly violent protests sweep the country.
It’s a key service in a country that is suffering extreme food and medical-supply shortages, and as antigovernment protests kick off once again. When the team of roughly 60 volunteers went to the frontlines earlier this month, they didn’t even have gloves, disinfectant, or bandages.
Many doctors have fled Venezuela. But Primeros Auxilios sees the current crisis as making their skills all the more needed. And beyond the present conflicts, they say, they want to be part of a more stable future. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans have taken to the streets this spring, calling for the government to step down after a series of increasingly authoritarian moves, such as dissolving the legislature – a decision reversed after international outcry. But the students are there to help anyone in the protests and counter-protests, including the National Guard.
The group launched back in 2014, when a wave of mostly student protesters took to the streets to call for the government of President Nicolás Maduro to step down in a movement known as “La Salida,” or The Exit. Though not as acute as today, food shortages and the imprisonment of opposition politicians were already problems. And after one of the early marches, a group of friends from the medical school decided they wanted to do more to contribute to the future of their country than simply march.
“For us, the best way to help was doing what we do every day: provide medical assistance,” says Féderica Dávila, a medical student here.
Over the past three years, oil prices have collapsed, removing a central source of revenue for the government. Inflation is in the triple digits, and citizens stand in line for hours to enter grocery stores with increasingly bare shelves. Children are skipping school and fainting due to hunger, and looting happens regularly. Reliance on international donations and aid for medical supplies is on the rise, with Venezuelans abroad helping fund-raise even as the government denies a humanitarian emergency is under way.
Protests kicked off once again late last month after the Supreme Court moved to take over the opposition-controlled congress – the only remaining check on President Maduro’s power. Although the move was reversed amid international pressure, opponents of the government haven’t left the streets. Some 26 people have died during protests and looting this month alone, and the government isn’t showing signs of backing down, either. Under threat of a special meeting by the Organization of American States to discuss action on Venezuela, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez said this week that Venezuela would simply withdraw from the regional body.
The first aid work is risky and challenging, with the aspiring medical professionals and young doctors working under extreme pressure. They’ve witnessed deaths, panic attacks, and have had to problem-solve with limited resources amid teargas and angry government forces.
“Many people get hurt because of the teargas canisters that the military throws at them,” says Ms. Dávila.
But their work is not limited to antigovernment protesters. As aspiring doctors and surgeons, they are guided by the Hippocratic oath, members say.
“During protests we approach the military and tell them that we’re also there for them, to help them if they get hurt,” says Daniela Liendo, another volunteer.
The health system in Venezuela has been slowly crumbling for years, reaching a point of crisis in recent months with hospitals lacking even the most basic resources to treat patients, like gauze or running water. Hospital workers report having only 3 percent of needed supplies, according to the Venezuelan Medical Federation.
And over the past 17 years, more than 2 million Venezuelans have fled the country, according to Iván de La Vega, a professor at Simón Bolívar University in Caracas. Amid that group are an estimated 16,000 medical professionals.
But Carlos Zambrano, a dentist volunteering with the Primeros Auxilios UCV, says he doesn’t see fleeing as a solution. “That’s the easy way,” he says. Yes, Venezuela is complicated and dangerous right now. But it still has potential, and Dr. Zambrano wants to be a part of that, he says.
On April 20, a group of volunteers gathered inside a home in eastern Caracas before yet another protest. Young men and women counted helmets, cleaned gas masks, and filled spray bottles with antacid, which they use to counteract the effects of teargas.
They work across Venezuela any time there’s a rally or demonstration, but most of their time is spent in Caracas, where the majority of the group’s members are based. On this particular day, the group is visibly dragging – many have dark circles under their eyes. The day before, the team worked nine hours at the largest – and the most challenging – march to date. Protesters fled clouds of teargas by jumping into the Guaire River, a sewage-crammed river running through the middle of the city.
“We were trapped in a stampede of people,” Ms. Liendo says, nervously playing with her keys. “It was impossible to help anyone without [more] space,” she says, adding that she keeps thinking about a woman who grabbed her arm and begged for help, coughing amid a cloud of teargas. But Liendo couldn’t do much in the moment. “It’s too easy to say ‘Please, stay calm’ from under [a gas] mask,” because you don’t know how badly people are choking without one, she says.
Zambrano, the dentist, says it’s hard to tend to people in need when the National Guard continues to throw teargas, even when volunteers are clearly identified with their green crosses. Liendo says what makes her most nervous is not so much her work on the front lines, but the fact that she knows her mother is out there amid the protesters. She’s seen the way demonstrators are treated. “I’m always hoping she won’t get hurt.”
But the warm welcome protesters give them buoys their spirits. And Venezuelans who have fled the country often send donated medical supplies to make the Primeros Auxilios UCV’s work possible. “We’ve received so much help, blessings, and beautiful messages from abroad,” says Dávila. It motivates her to keep doing this work, despite the risks.
Liendo says she’s often asked when she will leave Venezuela. Even though she sometimes asks herself the same question, her reply never changes.
“I’m staying here,” Liendo says. As part of her medical training, she often travels to low-income neighborhoods as a public service. “Each time I go to [someone’s home] to provide medical care and someone offers me their last piece of food, it makes me realize this is a great country, with great people,” she says. “I want to stay here.”