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Cuban Doctors Staff Venezuela's Free Clinics
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Cuban Doctors Staff Venezuela's Free Clinics

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Cuban Doctors Staff Venezuela's Free Clinics

Cuban Doctors Staff Venezuela's Free Clinics
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In exchange for oil, Cuba sends Venezuela medical staff for the nation's free clinics. But some complain that the scheme neglects Venezuela's rundown public hospitals and underpaid doctors.

MIKE PESCA, host:

This is DAY TO DAY.

In a few minutes, on this World AIDS Day, we'll hear about a new plan for coping with the epidemic in South Africa.

I'm Mike Pesca.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

First to Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez is trading oil for healthcare. He's giving Cuba a deal on oil in exchange for Cuban doctors to work in new clinics for the poor in Venezuela. Meanwhile, Venezuelan doctors complain they are underpaid and work in neglected public hospitals.

From Caracas, Jens Erik Gould prepared this report.

(Soundbite of crying)

JENS ERIK GOULD: It's called the war hospital. Perez de Leon is a public hospital in Petare, one of Caracas's most dangerous areas. Nightly, victims of gang violence in nearby barrios fill the 100-bed facility. Sometimes doctors tend to patients on the floor, because there aren't enough gurneys.

Tonight a woman brought in a colleague who suffered a deep head wound. Doctors say they lack the means to treat him. They don't even have soap.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

GOULD: Angry she stomps out of the hospital screaming without giving her name.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) Here in Perez de Leon they're incapable of even stitching up a sick person. He's injured and here they won't attend to him simply because they don't have anything to suture him with.

Dr. FRANCO MAYO(ph) (Doctor, Perez de Leon): (Speaking foreign language)

GOULD: Dr. Franco Mayo, an assistant traumatologist at the hospital copes with his frustration by kidding around with his fellow doctors. When asked how many patients this hospital can tend to at once, he chuckles and says none. But he is only half kidding. Dr. Mayo runs through a laundry list of out-of-stock supplies.

Dr. MAYO: (Speaking foreign language)

GOULD: They're out of an important anesthetic. There are no compresses or, as the night drags on, stitches either. Patients have to buy these things themselves if they want treatment.

But across town, Gladys Garcia(ph) has a dramatically different experience. After noticing unusual lesions on her skin and being denied treatment by a private hospital because she couldn't pay, she turned to a two-year-old free healthcare clinic.

Ms. GLADYS GARCIA: (Through translator) Before you had to go to a hospital. On several occasions they treated me badly. Today, no. Thanks to our president who had this initiative to form Barrio Adentro, we get very good attention from Venezuelan and Cuban doctors.

GOULD: Barrio Adentro, Spanish for Inside the Neighborhood, is part of a series of programs instituted by President Hugo Chavez, in which he uses oil trade to provide free or discount services to low income Venezuelans. Several patients sit in the waiting room of this red brick clinic, one of thousands that dot poor neighborhoods across the country.

Under Barrio Adentro, tens of thousands of Cuban doctors are brought to work in Venezuela in exchange for Venezuelan oil to Cuba under preferential terms. While patients praise the program because it gives treatment for free, 24 hours a day and closer to home, critics say public hospitals are paying the price.

Dr. FEDERICO JANAI(ph) (Venezuelan Medical Federation) : (Through translator) Public hospitals depend on the state.

GOULD: Dr. Federico Janai of the Venezuelan Medical Federation.

Dr. JANAI: (Through translator) What is the administration's excuse for equipping the Barrio Adentro clinics and not equipping Venezuelan hospitals? Why this discrimination?

GOULD: Janai says the government shouldn't pay doctors from Cuba when Venezuelan doctors at public hospitals barely make $300 a month. But Chavez says he is not ignoring public hospitals. He says he knows they're in bad shape, but he blames this on previous governments.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through translator) The hospital problem is very deep. It's a real cancer and it was aggravated by previous government's decisions to decentralize healthcare. There was no national health system, now there will be one.

GOULD: Chavez has said he wants to make the country's nearly 300 public hospitals the flagships of Venezuela's healthcare system. Last year, he announced in a $111 million plan to upgrade 79 hospitals by the end of this year. But doctors at Perez de Leon in Petare say they are disillusioned with the government's promises for better hospitals.

Manuel Rosales, who is campaigning against the favored Chavez in the run up to the elections on December 3rd, has promised to create a network of large hospitals and give doctors more equipment.

Mr. MANUEL ROSALES: (Through translator) Today, we begin the route to hope, to national reconstruction, the fight for a better Venezuela, for the rescue and improvement of our institutions.

GOULD: But with employees at Perez de Leon still referring to it as a war hospital, whoever wins the election will certainly have his work cut out.

For NPR News, I'm Jens Erik Gould in Caracas.

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