Reuters: Cuban Eye Operations For Venezuelans Pays For Oil Bills
Posted: 26 September 2005 08:04 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Cuban eye operations for Venezuelans pay oil bill
16 Sep 2005 18:33:26 GMT

Source: Reuters
By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA, Sept 16 (Reuters) - Venezuelans are flocking to Havana by the planeload for free eye operations under a medical program funded by their country that is helping Cuba pay for oil imports and keep its socialist economy afloat.

More than 70,000 Venezuelans have been operated on for cataracts and other eye ailments this year and the goal is 150,000 by the end of 2005, a Cuban health official said on Friday.

Operation Miracle, a new program cementing the alliance between the left-wing governments of communist Cuba and oil-producing Venezuela, is restoring the vision of poor Venezuelans.

It has turned Cuban hospitals into production lines for eye surgery, jamming corridors with patients awaiting their turn.

“It’ so wonderful for us. We could not afford this in Venezuela,” said Fabiola, who was accompanying her 75-year-old mother from the city of Maracaibo for a cataract operation.

“This is how (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez helps the poor,” she said in a crowded waiting room at Havana’ Pando Ferrer Eye Hospital. She declined to give her last name.

On Aug. 20, a record 1,648 eye operations at some 20 hospitals were performed in one day, the health official said.

Hotels and educational campuses have been taken over to house Venezuelan patients who get free air travel to Cuba, lodging and food while they are in Havana, courtesy of the Venezuelan state.

They are driven around in new buses from China, often escorted by police on motorcycles.

The VIP treatment underscores the priority President Fidel Castro has given to a program that is paying for vital shipments of 90,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan oil and gasoline, which represents an energy bill that exceeds $1.5 billion a year at today’ high prices.

Cuba, economically hobbled since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has been providing medical care to Venezuelans for five years and sent 20,000 Cuban doctors and dentists to work in Venezuelan slums.

In December, Castro and Chavez signed an agreement fixing payment for these services within a broad cooperation deal that renewed oil shipments at preferential rates. No official figures are available for the oil-for-health care arrangement.

CARIBBEAN PLAN

Earlier this year, Cuba extended free medical services to other Caribbean nations that will be funded by a regional energy cooperation accord with Venezuela.

The Petrocaribe initiative, signed on June 29, will provide oil to a dozen Caribbean nations on the same preferential terms enjoyed by Cuba, allowing them up to 25 years to pay for a good part of their imports at an interest rate of just 1 percent.

The oil assistance aims to expand Venezuelan influence in the region as part of Chavez’ efforts to counter U.S. plans to build a free trade zone with Latin America and the Caribbean.

Since July 25, more than 3,000 people from 10 Caribbean countries have had eye operations in Cuba under Operation Miracle, the Cuban health official said.

Meeting in Sandino, Cuba, last month, Chavez and Castro announced that Operation Miracle will cover all Latin Americans, offering to treat 600,000 people a year over the next 10 years for eye operations funded by Venezuela.

“Everything is paid for,” said Faride, from Guyana, who brought her 83-year-old mother for a cataract operation. “We are thankful.” She also declined to give her last name.

Cuba has one doctor for every 170 people, compared to 188 in the United States and 542 in Venezuela, World Health Organization figures show. It boasts universal health care and an infant mortality rate below that of the United States.

Cuba has 25,000 doctors serving in 66 developing countries. Castro recently offered to send 1,500 doctors to aid Hurricane Katrina victims, an offer that was not taken up by the U.S. government.
 

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