Medical Care Draws Cuba, Venezuela Closer

Venezuelan President Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro have worked on many joint ventures in recent years — for example, Cuban doctors have been sent to Venezuela in return for cheap oil. In the latest venture, Cuban doctors are providing free eye surgery for Latin Americans. Now Venezuelans are flocking to Cuba for medical care.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Over the past few years, the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela has blossomed. Venezuela provides cheap oil to Cuba. In return, Cuba sends its doctors to Venezuela. It also gives Venezuelans who travel to Cuba free eye surgeries. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro went to Cuba for this story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Dozens of Venezuelans stand outside the main surgical hospital in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. They all have patches over one eye and seem woozy. Three huge, new Chinese buses pull up to get them. In a country where most people ride bicycles, their flashy ride causes a stir. Monica Oliva(ph) is from the Venezuelan state of Miranda. She flew over to Cuba with about a hundred Venezuelans, and she says their treatment here has been first class.

Ms. MONICA OLIVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `We're staying in a great hotel. Everything has been free. We are very happy and grateful.' She says she could afford the treatment in Venezuela but...

Ms. OLIVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: `The hospitals over there take too long,' she says. `They told me that there was this opportunity and that on the way, I could see the country, too. They have given me amazing hospitality,' she says, `we're very pleased.

Ms. OLIVA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In September, Fidel Castro said that more than 80,000 Venezuelans have had eye operations this year in Cuba. It's part of an agreement between Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that trades medical treatment for 90,000 barrels a day of Venezuelan oil at favorable rates. The agreement is similar to the one Cuba used to have with the Soviet Union trading sugar for oil. Ophthalmologist Judy Spell Alaydia(ph) is part of a team in the eastern city of Santiago that operates on the Venezuelans. She says that six to eight doctors in two hospitals work on at least 300 Venezuelans a day in this city alone.

Dr. JUDY SPELL ALAYDIA (Ophthalmologist): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It gets tiring, she says, but it's figured out by how many doctors are available in a given province, and it's organized so that some surgeons can work and others can rest. And up until now, it's going well. Cuba has a system of universal health care. According to World Health Organization figures, it has an infant mortality rate lower than that of the United States. Part of the oil-for-doctors trade sends Cuban medical workers to Venezuela, too. Thousands of Cuban doctors work in poor neighborhoods there. Sitting in her home in Santiago is Ulada Gastiano(ph). She's back visiting her son after a stint in the city of Valencia in Venezuela.

Dr. ULADA GASTIANO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `We work directly in the barrios. We live in the houses with the local people, the patients. We are many Cubans there. We are divided by sector. In my sector, we are eight, and each one of us treats a section of the population, about a thousand patients.' Going to Venezuela is a popular choice for Cuban doctors. The primary reason is the money. Gastiano gets around $20 a month in Cuba; working Venezuela, she gets a $200 monthly stipend as well as a phone card to call home. She's been there for a year and she's signed up for two more.

Dr. GASTIANO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `People in Venezuela at first had their reservations. People thought we weren't really doctors,' she says. `They had their fears and they didn't come to us. But after people saw that we did have the knowledge, that they came to us and got what they needed, our relationships have improved and it's good.' But speaking privately, however, some Cuban patients and doctors say the system has been feeling the strain of treating the Venezuelans in their home country and on the island. Doctors say that there's a shortage of trained specialists. Most Cuban doctors now they say become general physicians and forego specialized training because what is needed in Venezuela are community doctors. Patients in Cuba complain that their hospitals are stretched and they're not getting the same standard of care they're used to. All this is causing resentment.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a Sunday market in Havana, a seller scoops black beans onto a scale. There's a shortage of vegetables all over the city and prices are high for the few that there are.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A female shopper says she doesn't know why there are so few for sale. After the microphone is switched off, someone else whispers that it's the Venezuelans that are eating them all. There's a thing called Radio Bamba here. It literally means radio lip. Cuba is a country with a very tightly government-controlled media and Radio Bamba is code for the rumors that fly through the population. Many these days speak to the antagonism some feel towards the Venezuelans. It's a sign that while Castro and Chavez seem to be getting ever closer, some ordinary Cubans are feeling less than charitable towards their new South American allies. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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