Free Eye Care From Chávez, All the Better to See Him

Por Venezuela Real - 26 de Febrero, 2008, 18:41, Categoría: Imagen gobierno / Chávez

The New York Times
February 26, 2008

PORLAMAR, Venezuela — Few places capture the disarray of this country’s public health system like the Hospital Luis Ortega. Unconscious patients lie on cots strewn near the reception desk. Paint peels from walls neglected for years. Soldiers stand guard to prevent worried relatives gathered on the curb from bursting inside.

But in a recovery room tucked away at the end of a dim corridor, a group of Nicaraguan patients with patches over their eyes offers insight into one of President Hugo Chávez’s most successful health initiatives. Called “Mission Miracle” and now in its fourth year, it provides free eye surgery to Latin America’s poor.

The evolution of the program into a symbol of Mr. Chávez’s political movement across the region illustrates how Venezuela’s leader is intensifying efforts to lift his government’s profile abroad even as he faces criticism at home over social problems.

“Those who call Chávez a vulgar populist are wrong,” said Julio Araoz, one of 96 Nicaraguans flown here to correct ailments leaving them partly or completely blind. Before doctors restored his vision in one eye a week ago, Mr. Araoz said he could barely stand to hear Mr. Chávez’s name or that of his ally, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.

“Now I salute Chávez and Ortega with profound gratitude and admiration,” said Mr. Araoz, 40, a carpenter from the northern Nicaraguan city of Matagalpa who was suffering from pterygium, a vision-restricting condition commonly found in tropical climates. The procedure, which would have cost more than $1,000 in Nicaragua, cost him nothing here.

Started in 2004 with financing from Venezuela for doctors to perform eye surgery in Cuban hospitals, the project has helped more than 400,000 people, according to Venezuelan officials. Facing an outcry from Venezuelan ophthalmologists, the government has sought to carry out more procedures within the country than in Cuba.

The Nicaraguans who arrived in this Caribbean city this month are part of this new phase of medical diplomacy. They were identified by volunteers sympathetic to Mr. Ortega, the Sandinista leader who has forged an increasingly strong political alliance with Mr. Chávez.

Many of the Nicaraguans were supporters of Mr. Ortega, but some were critics, like Mr. Araoz, and others were apolitical. They all stayed five to a room in Guayquerí Suites, an aging hotel in Porlamar’s gritty Llano Adentro district.

“These are five-star conditions as far as I’m concerned,” said Marden Espinoza, 69, a retired math teacher who proudly wore a red Mission Miracle baseball cap, in the color and style of Mr. Chávez’s political movement, before the state television cameras that filmed the group.

“The Venezuelans flew us here, fed us, operated on us and drove us to see the sunset on the beach,” said Mr. Espinoza, who had the cataract in one of his eyes removed. “I was treated with great courtesy, like a king.”

Not everyone speaks glowingly of the program, which has treated patients from 18 countries. Mirtha Noguera, president of the Venezuelan Ophthalmology Society, said she admired any effort to improve basic health services, but that Mission Miracle prioritized political objectives while neglecting other pressing health needs in Venezuela.

“Doctors are emigrating because they cannot earn decent salaries,” said Ms. Noguera, adding that a lack of postoperative care was a major problem with Mission Miracle. Still, she said that the government had made strides in improving the project to allow more Venezuelan doctors and hospitals to take part.

Precise figures on how much Venezuela spends on Mission Miracle are hard to calculate, since the services of Cuban doctors in the program are considered barter in exchange for subsidized Venezuelan oil sent to Cuba. Officials in the Ministry of Health in Caracas did not respond to requests for interviews.

But Provea, a human rights group, estimated that Mr. Chávez’s government spent a modest $16.3 million on the project in 2006. In 2007, Mission Miracle grew more ambitious, with more foreign patients arriving in Venezuela, and with Cuban doctors performing more surgeries in countries that are allies of Venezuela, like Bolivia.

In Nicaragua, Mission Miracle and other Venezuelan aid projects are bolstering one of Mr. Chávez’s closest allies. In a visit to Caracas last month, Mr. Ortega said Nicaragua’s economy “would have collapsed” if not for the Venezuelan aid, which is expected to reach tens of millions of dollars for 2007 and part of 2008 in the form of road improvements, microfinance, electricity generators and other projects.

Political tension has followed this strengthening of the project. In Peru, President Alan García, who has verbally clashed with Mr. Chávez in the past, responded last year by creating a program called “Seeing is Believing,” to provide similar procedures on 5,000 Peruvians a year.
And in Argentina, medical associations expressed alarm this month at reports that 17,000 Argentines were taken across the border to relatively poor Bolivia in the past two years for eye surgery by Cuban doctors. Argentine ophthalmologists claimed the Cubans lacked proper training.

But this bickering matters little to the program’s beneficiaries, with cataract or pterygium surgery costing more than $1,000 in private hospitals. “Of course politics is an important part of Mission Miracle,” said Juan Guzmán, 50, an epidemiologist who directs the program here. “What’s so wrong with attempting to strengthen ties with our brothers around Latin America when people benefit from this process?”

Sandra La Fuente P. contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela, and Ivet Cruz from Managua, Nicaragua.

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