Being a doctor in the midst of Nicaragua’s crisis is almost as risky as being young and rebellious. While the Daniel Ortega government cracks down on protesting students, doctors who treat them are branded as terrorists and forced to flee the country.
Doctors who have refused to obey government orders against treating opposition activists who are wounded during the protests run a grave risk, Dr. Carlos Duarte told el Nuevo Herald during an interview in Miami, where he sought refuge.
“We strongly rejected that order. The moral duty of a doctor is to reject it, because it’s a fundamental principle of the medical profession,” he said, adding that the order was never put in writing.
A pediatric cardiologist who does not belong to any political party, Duarte said he was forced to flee Nicaragua on July 14 under government threats because he had treated hundreds of wounded. He arrived in Miami a week later.
Health professionals in Nicaragua who have obeyed their Hippocratic oath now face the possibility of dismissals, threats, jail and exile.
More than 10 doctors at the Óscar Danilo Rosales Teaching Hospital in the city of Leon and 40 employees of the Santiago Regional Hospital in Jinotepe were fired last week without explanation.
“Those dismissals are the government’s retaliation against all of those who did their duty and helped people who needed medical attention,” said Duarte, secretary of the board of directors of the Nicaraguan Medical Association, made up of 34 specialized organizations.
The 51-year-old doctor joined other physicians and medical students who cared for the wounded in the public protests sparked in April by a failed government attempt to reduce social security benefits.
“The government said the wounded should not get treatment because they were delinquents,” he said.
That order to public hospitals is being blamed for the deaths of people who could have been saved, such as Alvaro Conrado, a 15-year-old student who arrived at the Cruz Azul hospital on April 20 with a gunshot to the neck, was not treated and ultimately died of his wound.
Health officials changed the strategy later, allowing doctors to treat the wounded but then summoning pro-Ortega paramilitary gunmen who took away the wounded and disappeared, Duarte said.
Private hospitals such as the Hospital Bautista and the Vivian Pellas Hospital, where Duarte worked until he fled the country, have more independence and had been treating more than 40 wounded daily, he said.
Many arrived in critical condition, shot with high-caliber weapons. “We saw that some had been shot by snipers,” Duarte added.
He also alleged that Health Ministry ambulances were used to transport armed and hooded members of paramilitary groups.
Duarte was one of the doctors who treated the wounded from the government’s July 13 attack on the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua.
On that day, after the students had spent two months barricaded in the campus to protest the university president’s support for the government, they agreed to leave the campus.
“The government, when it noticed that they were leaving, started the attack at noon, with paramilitaries armed with rifles and anti-tank grenade launchers,” said Duarte. He added that he and another doctor, Ricardo Pineda, and about 200 students took refuge in the Divina Providencia church across the street from the university.
“The students defended themselves with rocks and homemade fireworks. Two people died and 15 were gravely wounded,” he added.
The siege lasted until dawn, and at one point the shooting was so intense that Duarte and Pineda said goodbye to each other.
“We thought they were about to come into the church and murder everyone,” said Duarte, adding that he was strengthened by the students’ trust in the doctors.
That morning they practiced “war medicine,” with few painkillers or bandages, stabilizing the wounded and making splints from chair parts.
The next day, after church authorities mediated a cease fire and arranged for bus transportation to the Managua cathedral, Duarte received a message from a friend that he was about to be arrested.
“The minister of health, Sonia Castro, said I was going to pay dearly for it, because I had helped save the lives of the students. The goal of the police and the paramilitaries had been to kill everyone,” he said.
Duarte said he hid in the jungle, then escaped to neighboring Honduras and flew to Miami. His family also fled the country because the government is kidnapping relatives to force others to turn themselves in.
Duarte — who was 12 years old when Sandinista guerrillas, then led by Ortega and eight other comandantes toppled the Somoza dictatorship — said the current situation is “a copy” of what happened then.
“As for the persecutions, the murders, the cold way in which they act, these guys are worse,” he said.
“They are true criminals. Somoza’s people respected doctors,” he said. Today doctors are arrested and sent to the notorious El Chipote prison. About 20 are now hiding in Nicaragua while others have escaped the country.
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH.