ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
The U.S. Navy's hospital ship, The Comfort, is on a tour of Central and South America bringing medical facilities and services to the poor. It's stopping in Nicaragua, Colombia and Panama among other places. The mission is part of a new effort to boost America's image, call it medical diplomacy. Of course, medical missions to the region are nothing new. And ideological foes of the U.S. are doing the same thing. Cuba is stepping up its operations in Latin America, too.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports on the newest front in the battle for influence south of the border.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ten-year-old Michael Ibarra(ph) sits on a hospital bed in the USNS Comfort, his badly damaged hand cradled on his lap. According to his father, he dreams of being a pitcher for the Yankees someday, but because he suffered a fall when younger, his hand is mangled beyond use. Michael was sent to Cuba at the invitation of the government there, but they couldn't repair his hand.
So today, Michael is the poster child for the medical help that the U.S. is offering aboard The Comfort. The Panamanian press is out in force to shoot his picture. The U.S. ambassador to Panama is there to give him gifts.
Ambassador WILLIAM EATON (United States Ambassador to Panama): Michael, (Spanish spoken).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambassador William Eaton hands over a t-shirt emblazoned with the U.S.'s new slogan in Panama, Estamos Unidos, meaning we are together, a play on America's name in Spanish, Estados Unidos. Gavin Sundwall, press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Panama says the slogan is the way the U.S. is trying to relaunch itself here.
Mr. GAVIN SUNDWALL (Press Attache, United States Embassy, Panama): Well it's always important that people know who you are. And the United States has a long history with Panama and undertakes a lot of partnerships with Panama. And we noticed that since we have a long history, we tend not to be taken for granted, but people are used to us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Comfort's visit is that idea writ regional. The hospital ship will be treating tens of thousands of patients, and on this day, it's docked in the Panamanian port city of Colon.
Lieutenant KELLY KLINE(ph) (Naval Nurse): Did he bring anybody with him today?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Naval nurse Lieutenant Kelly Kline checks a patient's blood pressure before he sees specialist doctors aboard The Comfort. A long line of people have shown up for The Comfort's visit and the free medical care provides were advertised on the TV and the radio.
Theofilio Mendoza(ph) is there for knee surgery.
Mr. THEOFILIO MENDOZA(ph): (Through translator) This is magnificent. Here, it's hard to find a specialist. The hospitals take forever here to get an appointment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S. has found itself needing to focus on Latin America because there is a sense in this region that President Bush has been ignoring it, distracted instead by his problems in Iraq. And meanwhile, leftist leaders ideologically opposed to much of what the U.S. promotes, like free trade, have risen to power in country after country.
Medical diplomacy is not a new concept. Cuba, a longtime foe of the U.S., has been doing it for years. And recently, it's stepped up its efforts too. A few years ago, Cuba began a program to give free cataract surgeries to those in need across Latin America. But now, instead of just flying people there, paid for by Venezuela, the Cuban doctors are coming to those in need in semi-permanent installations in 20 countries. One of which is in Panama.
Mr. JOSE PALACIOS(ph): (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jose Palacios is an old man with eyes that are covered in a milky film. He sits heavily down and tells the Cuban doctor that he lost his eyesight eight months ago. He says without the Cuban help, he'd stay blind for years more.
Mr. PALACIOS: (Through translator) This is the best thing that exists for people of humble origins. If I wanted to do this on Panamanian Social Security, I'd have to wait for two years. If you go to a private clinic, it's twenty-four hundred dollars.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Which he doesn't have. The doctors here are doing 70 eye surgeries a day on patients from all over Panama. The project is a joint one. The Panamanian government offers the facility; the Cubans bring the manpower and the equipment. The facility opened in late March.
Dr. Julio Reyes(ph) oversees this program, which he says is an extension of Cuba's socialist system where health care is free.
Dr. JULIO REYES (Physician, Cuba): (Through Translator) Cuba goes to the places as where it is needed the most, unlike other countries whose professionals go to places where they get paid the most, or where they might have the most personal comforts. And we Cubans don't do marketing. We simply show what an island that has been blockaded since the triumph of the revolution can achieve 90 miles away from a huge empire that has always wanted to see it squashed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the kind of rhetoric that finds fertile ground here in Latin America. Critics of U.S. policy in the region like Panamanian political analyst Carlos Guerreraman(ph) say that America's new emphasis on medical diplomacy is all fine and well but...
Mr. CARLOS GUERRERAMAN (Political Analyst, Panama): That type of diplomacy I don't think is really has a big impact on the way people perceive the United States in Latin America. Cuba can get away with sending a team of doctors. It's a much smaller country with meager resources. The United States is the world superpower and people expect much more from the United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's the kind of attitude that U.S. Ambassador to Panama William Eaton says the U.S. is trying to change. He says the U.S. will be doing more.
Ambassador WILLIAM EATON (U.S. Ambassador to Panama): The visit of The Comfort is just one component of a comprehensive plan we have for medical diplomacy in Panama and throughout the region.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The U.S., for example, opened a medical training facility in Panama this year as well.
Ambassador EATON: I would disagree if that we're forgetting about the region. We can't afford to neglect this region. That's our backyard.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The competition for influence in this region once left thousands of people dead in the wars in Central America. Now, Latin America is one of the few places in the world where this clash of ideologies could partially be benefiting the poor. Still, there is an ugly side to the competition, say critics. The United States last year changed its immigration regulations so that Cuban medical workers can now get U.S. visas in third countries when they defect.
It's not clear how many Cuban doctors have taken advantage of the offer but Cuba says the U.S. is deliberately trying to undermine its program and it is the needy who suffer. Supporters of U.S. policy say that Cuban doctors are being used as slave labor.
(Soundbite of music)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at The Comfort, a military band plays at an event to launch the Panama mission. Jose Antonio Ibarra(ph), young Michael's father, says the politics of it all are way above his head. He just wants someone to help his son.
Mr. JOSE ANTONIO IBARRA: (Through Translator) I consider help the United States or Cuba gives is the same thing. From my heart, I gratefully accept it. And so does Panama.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, the two health care systems are very different, reflecting the much wider ideological divide. The day on The Comfort ends with the announcement that Michael's injury is too complicated to be treated on the ship. He will have to be sent to the United States for his surgery. The U.S. Embassy says it's looking for private financing to make that happen.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.