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Eye ops bring ray of hope to the Caribbean
Marc Frank

"I can see again," screams a front-page headline in the Jamaican Gleaner daily newspaper. In the accompanying story 23 poor Jamaicans celebrate successful operations in Cuban hospitals to treat cataracts and other eye conditions.
Similar stories are now daily fare across the Caribbean, with more than 5,000 people benefiting so far from a scheme dubbed "Operation Miracle" by its two sponsors: Fidel Castro, Cuba's president, and Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader.
Cheap Venezuelan oil has already helped fuel a modest revival in Cuba's economy, while some 25,000 Cuban doctors and paramedics are bestowing services that have reinforced the popularity of Mr Chávez in his country's poorest areas.
Now the two allies are using the combination of oil wealth and medical expertise to advance their interests in the broader Caribbean region. Washington is concerned but, in spite of ideological differences, Caribbean governments are finding the attention hard to resist.
"This is an example of integration and south-south co-operation," says Elinor Sherlock, Jamaica's ambassador in Cuba. "You see them, especially poor people who cannot afford care, staring in awe for hours out the window after their operations. It really is miraculous."
Under "Operation Miracle", Cuban doctors are performing as many as 1,500 operations a day in 14 locations throughout Cuba. Doctors are conducting eight operations at a time, and dozens of hotels and other lodgings have been taken over to accommodate patients.
In a recent speech Mr Castro said that the practice could eventually benefit as many as 25,000 people a year from the Caribbean - as well as 100,000 from Cuba, a similar number from Venezuela, and 120,000 from South and Central America.
Cuban doctors initially examine potential patients at home. Those chosen are then flown to Cuba, along with a companion, and receive food, accommodation and treatment there free of charge. Money comes directly from a social fund generated from savings by Venezuela's PetroCaribe Fund -- an energy integration plan under which Venezuela offers beneficiary countries long-term loans at interest rates of 1.0-2.0 per cent to cover 60 per cent of their oil purchases.
It appears that no expense is being spared, with more than two dozen weekly flights ferrying patients from various countries. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, aircraft carry patients from Belize; on Thursdays from San Vicente and Dominica; and on Saturdays from Granada, Antigua and Barbuda.
It all makes excellent publicity for Mr Castro and Mr Chávez, who recently announced he intended to introduce to Venezuela what he has described as "21st century socialism".
"The idea is to create a contrast with US free trade agreements, pressure the [International Monetary Fund], and make any area government that doesn't take advantage look bad," a Latin American diplomat said. "It is hard to criticise curing the blind, but there is no doubt the project has a propagandistic purpose."
Some 4.5m of the region's inhabitants require specialised eye care each year, and as many as 500,000 of them go blind, often because they do not receive adequate care.
Venezuela, which is pushing energy integration projects elsewhere in Central and South America, seems to be bearing most of the cost: for Cuba, the scheme, which is being run directly by Mr Castro, may well be generating revenues.
"Don't underestimate the worth of all those patients and companions -- well over 100,000 so far this year from Venezuela alone," says a Cuban economist. "Everything is being paid for. The care, the planes, the buses, the lodgings and food."
The amount of money the project generates is a secret. The one certainty is that Cuban doctors do not get rich from it. They may benefit from subsidised and free services, but their wages amount to no more than $25 (euro 21, £14) a month.