Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan doctors have come under pressure from President Nicolas Maduro's government for trying to alert a visiting UN mission about the severe lack of hospital medicine and equipment, NGOs say.
Venezuelan authorities say that US sanctions freezing $30 billion in assets have blocked imports of basic items including medicine.
But they have roughly stomped down on dissenting voices saying much of the resulting medical emergency is the fault of mismanagement, the NGOs allege.
"They forcibly booted out the head of a medical school in Maracay (west of Caracas) and since then we haven't heard from her," said Jaime Lorenzo, executive director of one association called Medicos Unidos (Doctors United).
"She protested against the repression of medical staff," he said.
An opposition lawmaker, Jose Manuel Olivares, who is also an oncologist and radiotherapist, on Twitter said she was "the third doctor in two weeks to be persecuted for having denounced the situation in the hospitals."
On Sunday a clash erupted when a pro-regime crowd threw stones at hospital staff in the northwest city of Barquisimeto as they waited for the arrival of representatives of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.
According to Medicos Unidos, the repression has worsened over the past two weeks. "We have drawn attention to our patients dying for lack of supplies and equipment. Doctors have been arrested without any reason at all," Lorenzo said.
- 'Precarious situation' -
On Saturday, a young doctor in the state of Carabobo, Ronnie Villasmil, tweeted that he was leaving Venezuela after being summoned by police for having contacted the UN mission.
"Now I have to flee like a criminal and my mother is crying over it," he wrote.
"They want to deprive me of liberty. My only crime is wanting to raise the alarm over the precarious situation in Carabobo's hospitals," he said.
The visiting five-member UN team has declined all contact with media. It is officially in the country on a "preliminary technical mission" to prepare for a possible visit by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who was formally invited by Maduro's government in November.
The team was finally able to visit the hospital in Barquisimeto when doctors and local officials provided an escort.
A doctor who spoke with the visitors said she told them of all that was missing at the hospital.
"I told them that patients we operated on can't get chemotherapy here and those unable to buy it abroad die. And when I told them how much we earn, their jaws dropped," she told AFP on condition of anonymity.
In crisis-hit Venezuela, a doctor earns between 18,000 and 30,000 bolivars per month -- the equivalent of $6 to $10.
The non-governmental organizations also said authorities had gone to length to try to cover up the extent of the problems by hastily slapping fresh paint down and hauling in last-minute deliveries.
"In Valencia (in Carabobo state) and Barquisimeto we saw two trucks delivering medicine and equipment to hospitals the mission was going to visit," Lorenzo said.
- Exodus of doctors -
A human rights NGO critical of the government, Provea, slammed "these camouflage operations before the UN mission's arrival," saying the sudden appearance of supplies was "testimony to the government's negligence and cruelty."
In Venezuela's public hospitals, 90 percent of medical items are missing and nearly all the state laboratories are closed, according to a survey by another NGO, Doctors for Health, with the opposition-ruled National Assembly.
Maduro's government has released no official figures on the state of public hospitals for three years.
The situation in the impoverished yet oil-rich South American country has been worsened by an exodus of doctors, tens of thousands of whom have left, according to Lorenzo.
According to the UN, 3.4 million Venezuelans have abandoned their country, with more than three-quarters of them -- 2.7 million -- leaving since 2015.
Matters were made worse when a weeklong, nationwide blackout early this month paralyzed the country and knocked out power to hospitals, many of which did not have working generators.