Translation – The Hospital
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we go back to our archive with a story from 2016 and we enter the San Juan de Dios hospital, in downtown Bogotá.
[Margarita Castro]: These past 16 years I’ve always come in, because it’s my profession. So, I’ve always come in my uniform, all these years.
[Daniel]: This is Margarita Castro. She’s the head nurse of a hospital that hasn’t received patients for 16 years
The San Juan de Dios public hospital was closed in 2001. Margarita hasn’t received a single peso of salary in all this time and she hardly has the quarters to pay for the bus. But all the same, every morning she gets up early and goes to the hospital to sign into a little book which shows that she came to work. She never leaves home without putting a white pin on her jacket.
[Margarita]: This is the hospital’s logo, on a heart, and it says San Juan lives.
[Daniel]: And that’s the slogan of a fight that dozens of employees of the hospital have waged for years to have their salaries recognized.
But, this is not just a story of labor disputes, but also of a public hospital that stopped being one, and of people like Margarita, for whom San Juan has become their life and an obsession. It’s a complex story, with bureaucracy, lawsuits and changes to the law.
Our producers José Luis Peñarredonda and Andrea Díaz investigated what happened.
Here are José Luis and Andrea.
[Andrea Díaz]: Imagine downtown Bogotá. Congested and chaotic with narrow streets and wide avenues, with all its racket, and full of people, got it? It’s like any other Latin American capital. And in the middle of all that, on the Carrera 10 and First Street, there is a gigantic, enormous space, as if a ranch had been dropped in the middle of the city.
[José Luis Peñarredonda]: That is the San Juan de Dios Hospital. And when we say it’s big, no… it’s really big! It’s 13 hectares (32 acres), which is about 16 soccer fields. It’s been there since 1901, and if you walk through it, what you see are 22 enormous buildings —built in the style of French architecture—, that once were impressive but now are practically in ruin.
[Andrea]: Yes, when we entered we saw several abandoned ambulances and a bunch of sealed off doors. There are still some rows of chairs stored away and some public phones that haven’t worked in years.
[José Luis]: But obviously the hospital wasn’t always abandoned.
[Andrea]: We’ve already met Margarita and in a moment we’ll hear her story, but first, you have to have a good understanding of what this hospital was before its decline. It was a special place, which provided care to the whole Bogota society, from the poorest people to presidents of the Republic and ministers.
[Mario Hernández]: Yes, San Juan de Dios Hospital was a model Latin American university hospital.
[José Luis]: This is Mario Hernández, professor at the Universidad Nacional and expert historian of the San Juan de Dios.
[Mario Hernández]: At one point, San Juan de Dios Hospital had around 1.200 beds, divided by medical specialty which were shaping new specialists and even doing important research and creating innovation.
[Andrea]: That is where medical students at the Universidad Nacional, the most important university in the country, did their residencies.
[José Luis]: And then, of course, the question is: What happened? How did an institution like this wind up broken, abandoned and left to ruin?
[Andrea]: Well, first, a decline like this one doesn’t happen overnight. Even before Margarita started working at San Juan, there were already signs of trouble. For example, in 1975 the physicians and residents went on strike demanding that the government increase the hospital’s budget.
[José Luis]: That’s because during that time the budget was so low that patients often had to bring their own syringes, gases and even surgical materials.
[Andrea]: This is where things get complicated. A little after that strike —in ‘78— the national government decided to withdraw from the management of the hospital, leaving it to Cundinimarca’s head of charity, but through a strange entity: a private foundation.
[José Luis]: And, well, here we have to explain something for the people who aren’t Colombian. Firstly, Cundinamarca is the department, or district, where Bogotá is located. Secondly, the fact that the foundation is a private entity is very important because that means that from that point on, the national government rid itself of most of its responsibility. It was officially no longer in charge of San Juan. And the situation didn’t improve: San Juan’s operational costs were high and there were fewer resources to cover them.
[Andrea]: Its income didn’t increase and in the 80s the money they were getting still wasn’t enough. Despite all that, when Margarita Castro started working there in 1989, it was still the most important public hospital in Bogotá. A respectable, prestigious institution. Patients…
[Margarita]: Came here to get their check-ups because we had the best doctors and the best diagnostic methods, and there were some very large, comfortable spaces which were very well suited to their care.
[José Luis]: That is important. Of course, there were problems with the budget, but that was nothing compared to what was coming.
[Andrea]: In the 90s two things happened: first, the new constitution prohibited the government from giving money to private entities, like San Juan. And secondly, a law was passed —Law 100— which required every Colombian to subscribe to an insurer. And if we had to identify the main reason for San Juan’s decline, it would be that law. Everyone who signs up with an insurance company has the right to receive care from the hospitals and clinics the company choses.
[Mario Hernández]: And of course, this forced all institutions, public or private, to adjust their costs and try to lower their rates in order to sell their services to the people who were paying for them, the insurers. That was what San Juan de Dios hospital wasn’t able to do, and conversely, it was systematically abandoned to the point of going broke.
[José Luis]: This put the hospital in a situation that couldn’t be resolved. San Juan had to sell their services cheaply to get on with the insurance companies but they couldn’t because they had to pay the professors and cover the costs of being a university center. So their prices were very high and the insurers started to send them fewer and fewer clients.
[Andrea]: And then, in 1990 the inevitable happened. In October, the Universidad Nacional called the residents working at the hospital to an urgent assembly. Margarita remembers this day clearly. She and the other nurses were alone, without doctors.
[Margarita]: We called them throughout the day saying: “Come back because we need you to assess this patient, others don’t have medical orders”. And, well, they were at the assembly.
[José Luis]: And when the meeting ended, everything changed.
[Margarita]: When they left the assembly, was when we saw… was them taking away their books and their clothes. Some did stay, but most of them left. I call it “the day of the exodus” because we were there on the eighth floor with the patients, and you could see through… from the enormous windows over there, they were leaving and leaving with their things, with clothes, books, everything, with bags, with… you know, leaving and leaving. Because the order was to leave the hospital.
[Andrea]: And a few weeks after the exodus, they stopped paying the other employees’ salaries.
[José Luis]: Each employee started considering what they were going to do. Some quit. Others looked for part-time jobs, some took leave. But a few, like Margarita, stood strong. They believed that San Juan could still recover.
[Margarita]: We resisted the… that the hospital would close its doors and turn its back to the people who were showing up there. We didn’t have to try to draw in patients from anywhere; they came to ask for our services.
[Andrea]: Caring for patients with practically nothing seemed idealistic, but they insisted.
[José Luis]: And the first thing they did was look for doctors who could do what the residents did.
[Margarita]: We looked for doctors who were already established, who were well-known, that had been, let’s say, our students and colleagues. So they came.
[Andrea]: The second step was finding medicine and food for the patients, because they didn’t have much at the hospital.
[Margarita]: We went around in the ambulances and hospital trucks to bring in medicine and food, to bring in what people and businesses gave us out of solidarity. We received donations from people you would not imagine. For example, from the prisons.
[José Luis]: You heard right. From the prisons. And it’s because San Juan was very important to the inmates because that’s where they were sent when they got sick. So they got the prisons to help them.
[Margarita]: And they went there in the truck and got, well, the eggs and the things they had for their breakfast.
[Andrea]: And they brought it back and it lasted for several days. But the situation was not sustainable in the long term. In the middle of all that —in 2000— some workers and students decided to come out in protest in the streets around San Juan.
[José Luis]: According to them, it was all the government’s fault because it favored the insurance companies and hadn’t been interested in the fate of the hospital.
[Andrea]: In the middle of 2001, public disturbances were a daily occurrence.
[Journalist]: But now we see at the moment a traffic jam on Avenida Caracas here in this section of the city, due to the worker’s protest of this situation, because of the hospital crisis.
[José Luis]: The situation at the hospital got worse every day, but the employees didn’t give up.
[Andrea]: And on September 3rd, 2001…
[Journalist]: The lights went out in San Juan de Dios Hospital. Early this morning Condensa shut off energy services because of a debt in excess of two billion pesos.
[José Luis]: Condensa is the energy company in Bogotá and the debt was equivalent to nearly 900.000 dollars at the time.
[Blanca Flor Rivera]: That’s what put an end to the hospital.
[Andrea]: This is Blanca Flor Rivera, another one of the employees at San Juan.
[Blanca Flor]: Because if they turn off the lights, how will you work? So, in a hospital without electricity, how do you do surgery, how do you work? That was the first deadly blow made against the hospital.
[José Luis]: Blanca Flor is 60 years old. She started working in ‘82 cleaning some floors of the hospital and by ‘97 she had gone up the ranks to become a typist in the accounting department. Today —like Margarita— she is one of those who keeps fighting.
[Blanca Flor]: Ah, first of all, sir, I’ll clarify that the hospital is not closed. The hospital is abandoned, it was never officially closed, and the changes I’ve seen…
[Andrea]: After they shut off the lights, they shut off the water and the phones, and ordered them to remove the few patients that were left.
[José Luis]: So, by 2001, this is the situation: In the middle of the capital of Colombia, there is an abandoned hospital with more than 20 unmaintained buildings. There have not been paid doctors since 1999, and there are only a few employees left there, who are the most stubborn and who don’t want to leave. Meanwhile, the poorest people in the city continue to show up looking for medical attention. And there is no one to provide it to them.
[Andrea]: In a normal situation, one would say: that’s it. It’s over. And the hospital would close, and that’s it. But it’s not that simple. Or at least it isn’t for people like Margarita, Blanca Flor and dozens of others. Remember that this was in 2001, and to this day they still sign that notebook, recording that they are there.
[José Luis]: But why? Because the director of the hospital at that time — Álvaro Casallas — gave them the order to keep going. That was in 2001.
[Margarita]: And he wrote us memos telling us to keep coming in, being there, and resisting.
[Álvaro Casallas]: That came from the Ministry of Labor, from the meetings we had there.
[Andrea]: This is Casallas. We spoke with him in May of this year, because we wanted to know if he remembered it that way.
[Álvaro Casallas]: What I told them in those meetings at the Ministry of Labor was: “Listen, if you need to liquidate, fire them. Fire them and tell them you are going to liquidate. Period. Fire them. And liquidate. And do it all the way you ought to.” Why not do it? They didn’t want to.
[José Luis]: For that reason, Casallas decided to send them a statement.
[Álvaro Casallas]: It was simply an informative memo because as a director you are obligated to tell them, well, what is happening. So, if in the ministry they are telling me: “No, those contracts aren’t terminated”; then, I tell them: “Then, I am going to inform them that the contracts aren’t terminated.”
[Andrea]: In other words, since the ministry did not take responsibility, Casallas decided to let the employees know that their contracts remained valid.
[José Luis]: And so, of course, Margarita guards that document like a treasure. It’s a yellowed sheet of paper printed from a computer which literally says: “Your contractual relationship has neither been suspended or terminated”.
[Andrea]: Some of the employees at San Juan have grabbed onto the memo in order to carry on all these years.
[José Luis]: And the signatures of 90 employees have continued to accumulate in more than 15 notebooks and about two boxes of loose leaf paper.
[Margarita]: I haven’t just signed it, since I’m the coordinator, I am in charge of it, of keeping it so that people come, sign in and are there.
[Andrea]: They want to use these notebooks to prove that they haven’t abandoned their jobs, and that because they have completed their shifts after all this time, they have earned their salaries.
[José Luis]: But for some other employees, signing the payroll form hasn’t been the only way to fight.
[Andrea]: Blanca Flor, for example, besides going to protests and confronting the police, also decided to sue in an attempt to nullify the privatization of San Juan which occurred in 1978. According to her and many of her colleagues, the hospital never should have stopped being public, much less receiving money from the government.
[José Luis]: San Juan’s grounds have been very appealing, because aside from costing a lot of money, they are located in a central section of the city where a lot of construction could be completed. Which perhaps is why when Blanca began working on the document…
[Blanca Flor]: They called us and told us they were going to kill us if we filed suit to nullify the privatization.
[Andrea]: Who called her? Well, we don’t know, but the threats affected her. So in order to make herself less vulnerable, she decided to sleep in the hospital. She thought it was a short term measure.
[José Luis]: But it wasn’t. Around that time her son-in-law was killed, and then, she separated from the father of her four children and was left homeless. Then it occurred to her…
[Blanca Flor]: To speak to my medical colleagues here and ask if they would let me have the apartment we’re in now.
[Andrea]: So in 2001 she left to live in the hospital with her four children. She was the first of about 50 people who, little by little, moved into the buildings at San Juan.
[José Luis]: And well, where she lives is not exactly an apartment, like she says. It’s more like a dorm, the kind where med students stayed in when they had night shifts. She stays on the ninth floor of the main building. The elevator hasn’t worked in 15 years. She has two rooms and a bathroom, which hasn’t had water in as much time.
[Andrea]: In one of those rooms, Blanca Flor put together a makeshift living room and kitchen. In the other larger room, she set up the beds and mattresses. The space was big enough for her, her children and her granddaughter.
[José Luis]: But things were never easy. Besides not having electricity or water, the area around the hospital was very dangerous. Cartucho street was a few blocks away, which for many years had been the central drug market in Bogotá.
[Andrea]: Blanca Flor was very worried that her children would get into trouble, being so close to that environment. And it wasn’t without reason: several of the 25 children who grew up in the hospital ended up becoming drug addicts.
[Blanca Flor]: There are children who were lost, who were absorbed by the system; on top of stealing money from their parents, the system made them drug addicts, alcoholics and sick.
[José Luis]: And for Blanca Flor’s children, living in what was left of San Juan Hospital carried a certain stigma.
[Blanca Flor]: They said to my children: “Ha! You don’t have a house”, because, you know, children can be very mean. And to have to tell your children: “Mamita, you say to them that you have lived in a hospital and that… that’s a story they don’t have. And that you do live in the hospital. And that you have big fields”, when you know that that isn’t true. Which, yes it is true but it isn’t a dignified life, that it’s a disgrace. That what was happening to them was shit.
[Andrea]: Five years passed, then ten and the situation at the hospital didn’t change. Margarita found herself needing to find other income: she makes crafts which she sells and from time to time she assesses dissertations. And she has always counted on the support of her family to keep up her fight for the hospital.
[José Luis]: Others started to lose their patience: of the 50 people at the beginning, 12 have left. They got tired. They say that some wound up in psychiatric hospitals and others committed suicide. Others just died of old age. Blanca Flor’s children grew up and live outside of the hospital now.
[Andrea]: We tried to speak with several of the other residents of San Juan for this story, but none of them wanted to be interviewed. The people who live there are suspicious of everyone, it doesn’t matter if it’s a journalist, a public servant or a neighbor. The years of fighting have left them like that: untrusting.
[José Luis]: That’s why we had to go up to where Blanca Flor was living in complete silence. If they knew that there was a stranger there, it could cause problems.
[Blanca Flor]: It’s that, turning into an awful tenement; like all awful tenements there are fights and with time you start to get tired of the situation, and everyone lives in their own world.
[Andrea]: Among the employees that stayed at San Juan different groups have formed. For example, even though Margarita and Blanca Flor want the same thing —for San Juan to return to being what it was and have their years of work recognized— they are not allies.
[Blanca Flor]: I talk to everyone involved and everything but there are discrepancies, substantive political discrepancies.
[José Luis]: Well, that’s not exactly true. Blanca Flor and Margarita, for example, practically never talk. And in the end the problem seems to be different ways of acting toward the hospital crisis.
[Andrea]: Margarita and her group —the ones who do not live in San Juan— decided to fight within the system, in a manner of speaking. They knocked on all the doors they could: they sought help from the authorities and became friends with some politicians. They don’t trust Blanca Flor’s group, the ones who live in the hospital.
[Margarita]: The people who live here don’t do it because they don’t have homes, right? They come… they do it to get paid a debt they are owed. And they have a right to be paid, lease their homes and come here. That was the decision they made. And I simply would never make that decision. That’s all I have to say.
[José Luis]: Blanca Flor obviously doesn’t see it that way. Her group decided to fight outside of the system and be more rebellious. Even though they filed lawsuits, they never believed in the institutions. They preferred marches, confrontations with the police and the take-over of the hospital.
[Andrea]: And no, as far as she’s concerned, she’s not taking advantage of anything. She moved out of necessity.
[Blanca Flor]: It was really hard because people started going without salaries, they started asking for places to live, they started not being able to pay their rent.
[José Luis]: In any case, these differences cause the employees to try to ignore one another every day. That’s why the two groups have split the hospital in two. In this 13-hectare space they have set up a kind of neighborhood, with invisible boundaries, named for the hospital buildings: plastic surgery, orthopedics or mental health, for instance.
[Andrea]: The main building, where Blanca Flor lives today along with five other people, is where the most important tasks were performed: surgeries, hospitalizations, emergencies. Today it is dirty and run down.
[José Luis]: And a while away from there, about a ten-minute walk, is the church. Off to the side —in a dark damp office— Margarita and her group meet every day. No one lives there. Compared to the other buildings in the hospital, it is well preserved. Many others are eaten away by rust and moisture, and in some the iron foundation is visible.
[Daniel]: But, despite their tensions, on February 11th, 2015 they had a reason to meet on the hospital patio.
The reason, after the break.
[Ad]: This message comes from NPR sponsor, Squarespace. Squarespace allows small businesses to design and build their own websites using customizable layouts, and features including e-commerce functionality and mobile editing. Squarespace also offers built-in search engine optimization to help you develop an online presence. Go to Squarespace.com/NPR for a free trial, and when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code NPR to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain.
[Life Kit]: If you love this show, then check out Life Kit —tools to help you get it together. Learn everything: from how to invest your money to how make time for exercise and have fun while yer doing it. Check it out in Apple Podcasts, or a at NPR.org/LifeKit.
[Latino USA]: Hi, I’m Maria Hinojosa host of the NPR show Latino USA. What do you think? There’s almost 60 million latinos and latinas in the US. We document those stories and those experiences each week. Find us on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcast.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break José Luis and Andrea were telling us about the different sides that formed among the hospital employees. Sides that couldn’t agree on what was the best method to have the hospital functioning again: some believed in the institutional route, others in resisting. Of course, the sides didn’t get along and tried to ignore each other every day, but, on February 11th, 2015 the mayor’s office in Bogota organized an event to announce the new plans for San Juan.
This inevitably brought them together.
[Gustavo Petro]: No ladies and gentlemen, this hospital is not private. This hospital is part of the public history of Colombia. This hospital was expropriated illicitly in such a way that…
[Daniel]: This is Gustavo Petro, mayor of Bogotá at the time, speaking at that event. And that meeting was a big deal. Not only was the mayor there, but also the ex-president Manuel Santos, and many other public officials.
During his political career, Petro said various times that San Juan was a symbol of what he considered “the disaster of Law 100”, which changed the healthcare system in Colombia. And several times he said that it should be reopened and should belong to the citizens and not to a private institution. That day he even recognized the employee’s struggle.
[Gustavo Petro]: But it is thanks to the effort of the workers who went to look after the public heritage, history and knowledge, that we are able to open the hospital again…
[Daniel]: José Luis and Andrea continue the story.
[Andrea]: You heard right. Reopening San Juan was one of the flagship projects of his mayoral administration. And that day Petro was there, announcing his plan —nothing concrete. He was promising to start the processes of buying and opening the hospital. And on top of that, he recognized that without people like Blanca Flor and Margarita that would not have been possible.
[Gustavo Petro]: If that work force had not remained during 15 or 16 years of resistance, raising the chances that this hospital not die. San Juan de Dios Hospital lives.
[José Luis]: And that day he talked about everything he wanted to do before the end of his term.
[Gustavo Petro]: Here we want to open 17 surgery rooms, here we want to open the emergency rooms that Bogota needs. We are going to do it with district resources, but we want support at the national level.
[Andrea]: At one point, Petro asked some of the workers to come up to the microphone.
[Margarita]: And that is when he said he wanted me to come up, well… (laughter) and I took the microphone to… well, to make it clear that them… well, that he and they were mistaken.
[Margarita]: And we should not disavow worker’s rights or pensions which are still pending; but not as the governor said, for the former employees, no> they are current employees. That commitment includes today, when as you can see, the hospital community is here like we have been day after day in the hospital.
[José Luis]: That day also marked the start of the countdown for Petro and his team. They had 10 months left in his term to fulfill his promise. In that time they had to open at least one part of the hospital.
[Andrea]: A little after this event, they began a few projects at San Juan. The site filled up with workers and construction materials.
[José Luis]: They even set up a building as the Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences offices, which, of course, didn’t need a lot of infrastructure to operate.
[Andrea]: We spoke with Marta Lucía Zamora, Petro’s secretary general and official spokesperson for the mayor’s office. We interviewed her in July 2015, when there were only five months left in Petro’s term.
[Marta Lucía Zamora]: We will have to open the emergency rooms, we are going to do that this year before the term ends. And these are acts that are… that are concrete and that the society and the community are going to find that, yes, providing health services there is a reality.
[José Luis]: And yes, the process seemed to be moving forward, but the employee’s problem continued without getting resolved. We spoke with Margarita when there were three months left until Petro’s term ended.
[Margarita]: What has been accomplished? That the hospital, as a hospital, has preset these actions, right?, for… for opening. But they have not done anything for our rights.
[Andrea]: Petro was fully aware that the debt to the workers was still pending. He mentioned it in his speech that day at the hospital.
[Gustavo Petro]: We must honor our payroll and pension debt, without a doubt, and we must seal the wounds that were opened.
[José Luis]: But when are they going to pay them? Who’s going to pay them? How much money? Petro did not make a promise with figures and dates in his speech. The issue is like a hot potato being passed around among all of the entities involved.
[Andrea]: Let’s remember that they stopped paying the employees in 1999 and many did not sit idly by.
[José Luis]: Many filed personal lawsuits in different courts. But depending on the judge the results were different. Some judges ordered that some employees be paid, but only between 2001 and 2007. And in other cases, no. Not a cent.
[Andrea]: So some workers turned to the Constitutional Court, one of the country’s highest courts. In 2008, after nine years without receiving a salary, they got an official answer.
[José Luis]: The court said that the working relationship ended in September 2001. The court’s argument is that from that date on the hospital no longer functioned as a hospital, so there was no work to do there. There were no patients for care for.
[Andrea]: In other words, all of those people who were living in the hospital or going there every day to sign a payroll form for 15 years, would not be compensated for it.
[Marta Lucía Zamora]: And they didn’t accept that and that’s why they continue in this battle to have the time after their ties to San Juan recognized.
[José Luis]: Do you remember that yellowed document signed by Álvaro Casallas, the director at the time, telling the employees to keep working? The one that Margarita guards like a treasure? Well, that is part of her argument. Here is Casallas again:
[Álvaro Casallas]: So, you hear a mayor and you hear a minister and everything, and they say: “No, how do they expect us to recognize their time working when there are no patients?” But no one dares to say: “They never received a formal notice telling them that their contract was terminated.”
[Andrea]: And actually, none of their contracts were officially terminated. Sebastián Senior, a lawyer working to reopen the hospital, explained it to us like this.
[Sebastián Senior]: The contract ends when the contract is liquidated, you see? And it should be signed by the employer as well as the employee.
[José Luis]: But that never happened. The contracts are, let’s say, in limbo. They are not valid, because they have no reason to exist. But they aren’t dead either, because they have not ended in accordance with the law.
[Andrea]: And that’s just the employee’s argument for not accepting the court’s decision.
[José Luis]: In addition, because the financial situation of the hospital was terrible for a long time —at least since the mid-seventies— there are still workers that are owed money from before 2001.
[Andrea]: And the court gave an ultimatum regarding that as well. They gave the government until 2013 to make those payments. But that has not happened and Petro offered an alternative in turn.
[Marta Lucía Zamora]: The solution that we offered them, especially those who are living in San Juan de Dios Hospital currently, is looking for subsidized housing, so they can have dignified housing and leave San Juan de Dios for somewhere else.
[José Luis]: In other words, they offered them a house which would be subsidized by the government.
[Andrea]: But they don’t want a house. They want to be paid for all those years, up to the present, and for the hospital to go back to operating like when it was at its best.
[Blanca Flor]: A public good can’t be abandoned like that, a state good like that abandoned. This is an embarrassment for this system, for this government. This is the last straw in all rules and laws.
[José Luis]: Blanca Flor never believed in Petro’s promises, and time proved her right. Despite the construction, a few months after the event with the president, it was clear that San Juan would not be able to receive patients any time soon. The emergency room, which was the ex-mayor’s big objective, did not manage to be completed before the end of his term on December 31st, 2015.
[Andrea]: The new mayor, Enrique Peñalosa, did not have San Juan de Dios as a priority. For him, restoring it costs too much. The new secretary of health, Luis Gonzalo Morales, said this in a press conference in January, 2016.
[Luis Gonzalo Morales]: A fully-equipped 250-bed hospital built with all modern technologies costs 250 billion pesos. The restorations to San Juan will cost us a trillion pesos. And what becomes obvious —and what the mayor’s office has already said— is that we have other priorities, and I would rather spend that trillion pesos building four hospitals, than just have one for the same amount of money.
[José Luis]: We sought out Morales to ask him about the details of his statement and we found him walking through another hospital in Bogotá. He spoke with us as he walked. This is what he told us in April 2016.
[Luis Gonzalo Morales]: You see, first off, the San Juan de Dios property still doesn’t belong to the district.
[Andrea]: In other words, the process of buying San Juan, which started under Petro, still hasn’t been completed.
[José Luis]: And, of course, a large part of the delay is due to the situation with the employees.
[Luis Gonzalo Morales]: That means that the government of Cundinamarca has to take care of the 32 families that I understand are living in… are inhabiting that space. In other words, they have to hand over the hospital to us without those families living there.
[Andrea]: And the government of Cundinamarca is now in control of the hospital. Which is why Morales says that the governor’s office should be the one to solve the problem.
[José Luis]: We tried to speak to governor Jorge Rey, to learn what will happen with the employees. We sent questions to his press officer, and to this day they have not answered. But here is the statement he gave to another media outlet in March of this year.
[Jorge Rey]: There are people in the facilities. So, uh, it is fitting for us to, well, deliver the property, uh, completely cleaned out and without the presence of these people by way of police action.
[Andrea]: What Rey means —in a less diplomatic way— is that the governor’s office is going to remove the residents of the hospital with the police.
[José Luis]: And presumably, once it is unoccupied, they will hand it over to the mayor’s office.
[Andrea]: But, for the current administration, ex-mayor Petro’s initial plan is not viable. Here is Morales again.
[Luis Gonzalo Morales]: In order to open emergency rooms, there need to be support areas. There need to be operating rooms, there need to be laboratories, there need to be x-rays, there need to be hospitalization facilities. And what the prior adequate… uh, prior administration did was only set up the first floor, which is the area for emergencies, but there are no support areas, so they can’t open the emergency room.
[José Luis]: And even though the current mayor’s office has some plans for what today is San Juan, they are not as ambitious as Petro’s.
[Luis Gonzalo Morales]: Two priority care centers are going to open in two or three months at most.
[José Luis]: Inside of San Juan de Dios?
[Luis Gonzalo Morales]: Yes, inside San Juan de Dios.
[Andrea]: And in ten years, according to him, they will finish a new hospital on a part of San Juan’s grounds, which are empty today. Rebuilding the current buildings is too expensive and Morales says this administration won’t do that.
[José Luis]: The nearest hope San Juan de Dios had of coming back to life was reduced to a minimum. We’ll have to wait another ten years to see if San Juan will keep its name. But what is for certain is that by then, the employees that live there now will almost all be over 70 years old. It would be very late in life for them to be able to go back to work.
[Andrea]: To Casallas, the ex-directir, the situation with the employees seems…
[Álvaro Casallas]: The most miserable, that someday someone will have to pay. Because to me it’s the most inhuman, insensitive attitude. The hospital is a monument to neglect, to “I don’t care,” to… to the inhuman treatment of people. That is to say, it’s the opposite of what it should be, the banner of what the hospital historically was.
[José Luis]: It’s been years since the main building has looked so good from the outside. The soccer field is in good shape. You can even see some completed projects: a nursery, the Legal Medicine office, and some clinics where the mayor’s office hopes will be able to care for patients soon. But the building Blanca Flor lives in continues to be worn away by dampness and is full of pigeons. The furniture is broken and covered in dust. It all has the air of a haunted house.
[Andrea]: There is still no water and the electricity only works in a few parts of the building. Everyday tasks like bathing or making coffee require exhausting logistics. Blanca Flor has spent years carrying liters of water up the stairs on her shoulder and stringing a cable from the middle of the ceiling to have a light bulb at night.
[José Luis]: She has already built her life. Her children are adults now, they managed to go to college. She has figured out how to survive with next to nothing and bring them up.
[Andrea]: Margarita’s children are also professionals, or are about to be. She lost the battle to have her salaries and benefits of the last 15 years recognized, but she continues to fight, because San Juan is her life’s purpose.
[José Luis]: Her greatest victory is helping to have the hospital recognized as a National Monument in 2002. In addition to the honor, that prevents San Juan from being demolished. Her dream is to be there when the hospital begins operating again.
[Margarita]: And we are all here, those of us who know how… and have learned more, who know how that hospital would run. But they have to take us into account. We cared for the hospital and made it visible for 16 years, and the least we hope is to be part of putting it back to work.
[Andrea]: Blanca Flor, on the other hand, already lost hope.
[Blanca Flor]: The walls can be varnished, fixed, cemented and sealed, they can be turned around and painted; but us humans… take us back, build a time machine, go back in time and make us young again because there has been harm done . And that can’t be reversed.
[Daniel]: Two years and a half later, the situation at the hospital is very different. Most of the people who lived there have left. The mayor’s office of Bogota announced in November 2018 a project to rebuild the San Juan de Dios facilities and have another hospital running there. To that end, six building will be demolished, among them, the central tower where Blanca Flor lived.
Blanca Flor left at the end of 2015, shortly after we spoke with her. She was tired of fighting and told us that the poor conditions in the building where making her sick. She now lives with one of her daughters.
Since 2016, Margarita hasn’t been able to enter the place where she used to spend her days because the guards changed the locks. Sometimes she gets together with her colleagues at the hospital entrance. Neither she nor Blanca flor agree with the mayor’s office’s new project. The say that the buildings will be recovered, but the great public hospital, open to all Colombians will be buried forever.
Andrea Díaz is a journalist and documentarian, and lives in Montreal. José Luis Peñarredonda is a journalist and lives in Bogotá.
Camila Segura is the lead editor at Radio Ambulante and lives in Bogotá.
This story was edited by Silvia Viñas, Luis Trelles and me. The mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri, with music by Luis Maurette.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Andrea López Cruzado, Rémy Lozano, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Have you joined our Club de Podcasts yet? It’s a group on Facebook where we discuss episodes of Radio Ambulante with listeners from other places in Latin America and the world. Besides that, our team shares advice for producing audio stories. Look for it under Club de Podcasts Radio Ambulante.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.