When Houston heart surgeon Rafael Espada, MD, decided to seek
political office, he didn't settle for the local school board or
city council. No, he decided to start at the top, or very near
Dr. Espada, you see, is running for vice president. Not of the
United States, but of his native Guatemala.
In April, the renowned heart surgeon closed his practice at
Methodist Hospital in Houston after 38 years to return to Guatemala
and campaign for vice president. Dr. Espada is the running mate of
Guatemalan presidential candidate Alvaro Colom. The pair, running
on the center-left Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) party
ticket, enjoys a substantial early lead in the campaign and is
considered a good bet to win.
While some might hesitate to give up a lucrative career and
their home of nearly four decades, Dr. Espada sees this campaign as
his chance to give a little back to the country of his birth.
"I see this as an extension of what I've been doing all these
years," he said. "Instead of taking care of one or two hearts a
day, I would like to take care of 14 million hearts that are in a
different pathology, a different need. It's a need of development,
need of growth, need of hope, and need of changes."
Dr. Espada's decision to seek political office in Guatemala was
not a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, he has been approached
frequently over the past several elections to seek high office in
Guatemala. He rejected those overtures in the past, but this year
he decided the time is right.
In fact, Dr. Espada, 63, has been attracted to public service
since the mid-1960s when, while still a medical student, he was
invited by the U.S. State Department to visit Washington, D.C., to
see firsthand how American democracy works. He spent six months
working as an intern in the office of U.S. Sen. Robert F.
"He was a very open person," Dr. Espada says of Senator Kennedy.
"He was always worried about everybody, but mainly for the weak or
the oppressed or the people who were under injustices. That
inspired me to dedicate my life to serve others."
Senator Kennedy helped arrange a meeting between Dr. Espada and
Michael DeBakey, MD, which eventually led to Dr. Espada moving to
Houston in 1969 to train in thoracic surgery.
Dr. Espada says he intended to return to Guatemala to practice
following his training, until then-chief resident Ken Mattox, MD,
pointed out that Guatemala had no hospitals or infrastructure for
performing heart surgery.
Dr. Espada decided to stay in Houston a year or two to see what
would happen. "I stayed a year or two at Methodist Hospital, and
that became 20 years because every time I wanted to go to Guatemala
there was still nothing there."
Still, Dr. Espada maintained close ties with his native country,
and in 1994 he took it upon himself to furnish the necessary
infrastructure to provide cardiac care to Guatemala. He created a
foundation to raise money and, working with the Guatemalan
government, established the country's first and only heart center,
known as Unidad Cardiovascular (UNICAR).
Since then, Dr. Espada has traveled to Guatemala one weekend
each month to perform heart surgeries at UNICAR. The facility now
sees between 600 and 800 cases each year.
"It's been a very rewarding experience, and it's given me good
recognition in the area to be seen as a Guatemalan and as somebody
who would like to help the people who don't have the means to have
good health care," he said.
That work made Dr. Espada something of a national hero in
Guatemala and prompted repeated attempts to draft him into the
It also garnered him recognition here. In 2006, he received the
inaugural Methodist Hospital Humanitarian Award. He donated the
$10,000 cash grant that came with the award to the foundation he
created to purchase medical equipment and supplies for UNICAR.
Michael Reardon, MD, professor and chief of cardiac surgery for
the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center, says Dr. Espada has traveled
extensively through Central and South America working with the
Ethel Kennedy Foundation.
"He really epitomizes what people think of as doctors," Dr.
Reardon said. "Not somebody just taking care of individual patients
but really caring about people across broad spectrums of
On to Victory
Both Drs. Reardon and Mattox think Mr. Colom and Dr. Espada's
chances for victory are excellent. The first round of voting in the
presidential election will be Sept. 9. With more than a dozen
different parties vying for political power, it is unlikely any
ticket will get a majority, so a second round of voting featuring
the top two vote-getters likely will occur on Nov. 2.
The Colom-Espada ticket had a double-digit lead in April, and
political observers say they have a good chance to win despite
being an opposition party to the current government and despite the
recent entrance of Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu into
the race as an independent candidate.
Austin political consultant Kelly Fero, whose firm has
connections in the region, says the UNE holds the third most seats
in the Guatemalan Congress. While Mr. Colom is considered the
better politician, Dr. Espada is regarded as the "substantive
member of the ticket" and likely will play a strong role in policy
development, Mr. Fero says.
In fact, Dr. Espada says the Guatemalan vice president enjoys
much more power than the U.S. equivalent. The vice president there
coordinates the cabinet and plays a major role in developing
programs and policy for approval by the president, he says.
If elected, Dr. Espada says his primary objectives will be to
improve health care, education, and the economy in Guatemala.
"One of the big tragedies of our country is unemployment," he
said. "We're running about 38 percent unemployment, which is
extremely high, which explains why people have to migrate to this
country. If we have jobs in our country, we can keep those people
working down there, we can keep them with their families."
Dr. Espada says his motto usually is "failure is not an option,"
but he recognizes that nothing is certain in politics. If his party
loses, he likely will remain in Guatemala and perform heart surgery
at UNICAR. If they win, however, you might just see him at the top
of the presidential ticket when the next elections are held four
years from now.
can be reached by telephone at (800) 880-1300, ext. 1392, or
(512) 370-1392; by fax at (512) 370-1629; or by email at