Dr. Roberto Belmar, Santiago Chile's Public Health Director, at the RSPM


Roberto Belmar, Director of Public Health Zone, Santiago, ChileOn Tuesday, July 22nd we had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Roberto Belmar, the current Director of Santiago Chile’s Public Health Zone, speak at the RPSM. Dr. Belmar has a special relationship with our Department. In the 1970’s he came to Montefiore as a political refugee and worked for many years in the Social Medicine Department. His personal story is quite compelling, although his talk on Tuesday was devoted to his current work as a public health Official.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s Dr. Belmar was a Professor of Community Medicine in Chile. President Salvador Allende named him as the Director of a primary health care network of 45 health centers providing care to more than 3 million Santiago residents. Following the military coup of 9/11/1973, Dr. Belmar fled Chile in the face of a military order to execute him if he attempted to enter a hospital.

Dr. Belmar took political asylum at the USA with support from Montefiore Hospital, Dr. Victor Sidel, Dr. Jack Geiger and the APHA; see, for example, the APHA’s 1977 report on the Chilean Health Care system. Dr. Belmar led the Chilean exile community in the US, creating the “Emergency Committee to Help the Chilean Health Workers.” The Committee was supported by more than 10,000 physicians and health workers in the US.

Dr. Belmar returned to Chile with his family in 1985 to help organize resistance to the military dictatorship. In 1989 Patricio Alwyns became the first democratically-elected President of the post-coup period. Dr. Belmar was named the Chief of a newly created Department of Primary Care. In 1990 he was instrumental in establishing a “Statute of Primary Care” which secured free primary care for all Chileans. He later developed the Division of Environmental Health (1995-2000) which is the Chilean equivalent of CDC, FDA, OSHA & NIH. He was instrumental in creating the regulatory bodies for foods, occupational and workplace regulation, air quality, water quality, industrial waste, home and city waste, and mine industry sanitation.

Dr. Belmar now serves as the Health Officer of Santiago Health Zone. In this role he is responsible for overseeing the health care and public health of the (now) 6 million residents of the Chile’s capital city, Santiago. During his talk Dr. Belmar emphasized a broad conception of public health. To take the single example of air quality, his office was involved at the community level, where it worked to upgrade wood-burning stoves in individual homes; at the city level, where his greatest dream was to put a cap on the number of cars in Santiago; and at the national level, where he negotiated with large corporations to get cleaner burning woods and fuels. He told us, with a rueful smile, that he was the only one in the government who liked the idea of a cap on cars, “even the President is against it.”

His conception of public health also involved community participation. He had recruited retired people to work as community inspectors. They would issue sanitary warnings modeled on the red and yellow penalty card system in soccer. Occupational health was supervised by joint factory committees made up of workers and management. “We are lucky to have an increasingly strong Union movement to work with,” he noted in a comment that would seemed unthinkable for a US public official.

He spoke about the clinical programs run by the public health service and told a particularly poignant story about their program for the survivors of torture. During his exile, Dr. Belmar had come to know Senator Edward Kennedy. Senator Kennedy had queried him regarding how much money the US had spent overthrowing Allende. This was estimated to be about $10 million dollars. Kennedy made sure that the US allocated $10 million in aid for a Chilean program to treat survivors of torture. (For Kennedy’s role in combating torture, see the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1989).

Dr. Belmar is an active teacher and innovator in medical school teaching, participating in the Introduction to Community Medicine, Behavioral Sciences in Medical Schools, the Summer Field Work in Chile, a Rural medicine clerkship, The Evening School of Medicine for workers, and the Sophie Davies School of Biomedical Education at CUNY.

Posted by Matt Anderson

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5 Responses to “Dr. Roberto Belmar, Santiago Chile's Public Health Director, at the RSPM”

  1. 1Bob Massad

    Hello All:
    I am lucky to have had a longterm professional and personal relationship with Dr. Belmar and his wonderful family. I am worried now because I haven’t been able to reach him since the earthquake. My contact information may be old; can anyone tell me how to contact him?

    FYI: for those of you for whom my name is unknown, (probably a lot of you since I retired in 2000) I was the first Chairman of the Department. I look at you website and feel both proud and guilty: proud because of the continuity in the RPSM mission and guilty because it has gone so far in the improvements that have taken place since I left.

    Good luck to all. Bob

  2. 2Tony

    What a man, a real inspiration.


    Dr. Belmar is the best doctor in the world and i am so proud to call him my grandfather!


    Dr. Roberto Belmar has dedicated all his life to struggle for better health care. Being a doctor made him realize that health is one of the most important elements that affect everyone’s life. He has always felt that he had a calling to make sure that those people that need health care should have access to it. He is an intellectually powerful man and he understood that health is a highy political thing. At the same time he always tried to understand the heatlh needs of the people. His understanding of cultures and social issues makes him a unique leader in the realm of health. His leadership position in public health and enviromental issues has always being shaped by his undertanding that there is an intricate relationship between those two areas. Being the daughter of such an extraordiantry man I can only say that he has never stopped working for what he believes. His life commitment to promote legislative changes to ensure a better health care in his country and his participation in world organizations to set better standards in health around the world is worth every sacrifice he has made in his life. He is the type of man that the only reward he seeks in his life is to see that his vision changed the health standard of someone in need. The smiles from kids and mothers in a new open free health clinic in the chantytown areas in Santiago is all what he seeks. We love him so much and we are so proud of his accomplishments.

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