Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project
An Oil-for-Aid Deal that Really Works
Berta Rabelo remembers the day her life changed forever. It was March 14, 2004, when a neighbour dropped by her tin-roofed shack to tell her that a doctor had opened a clinic a few doors from her home in Barrio La Esperanza, a shantytown in the southern hills high above the glass skyscrapers of downtown <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />
And the man wasn't even Venezuelan. Dr. Eliecer Hernandez, 32, had come to one of the country's poorest neighbourhoods from
His presence is part of a controversial "oil-for-doctors" program that has seen 15,000 Cuban medics set up clinics in
"They are not doctors, they specialize in politics," Duglas de Leon, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation, declared to a local newspaper. He obtained a court order prohibiting Cuban doctors from working in
Today, the Cubans staff 300 clinics in the most indigent and inaccessible parts of a country that is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter but starkly split between rich and poor. The Pan-American Health Organization has come out in favour of the program, and plans to make it a model for other countries.
The largest deployment of Cuban professionals since
As well, it has helped to revive the political career of Mr. Chavez and his mix of militarism and socialist ideals. In April, 2002, after only three years in power, he was briefly ousted in a coup led by disaffected military and business leaders. He was reinstated in two days, but a year later the government's approval rating stood at just 35 per cent.
Since then, Mr. Chavez's support has increased significantly among the poor, who make up 70 per cent of his 23 million people. In August, he won 59-per-cent approval in a referendum on his presidency. By that time, according to Tomas Ra mos, the director of health in
In the bowels of Barrio La Esperanza, patients such as Berta Rabe lo hear little of the political debate. Before this, no government services had ever reached this slum, which is without plumbing, garbage collection or electricity. Dr. Hernandez volunteered for the mission, leaving his home in
Other patients have gastrointes tinal and respiratory illnesses, skin lesions, head lice and high blood pressure caused by a diet rich in fat.
"I never imagined that people's misery could be so acute. It's different in
Dr. Hernandez's assignment may last as long as five years, and he hopes that he will be permitted soon to bring his wife and baby to join him in the clinic. The Chavez government pays him $200 (
That may be the case on the ground, but for the country's leaders, the arrangement is very much about money as well as power. In 2003, Mr. Chavez reorganized the country's state-owned petroleum company, replacing 19,000 striking workers with government loyalists and cementing his control over the oil-for-doctors program, which many former employees opposed. Last year, Mr. Chavez even appointed his brother and political mentor, Adan Chavez, to head
"The loss of its Venezuelan bonanza would be economically, if not politically, unbearable. And that is something Castro is not going to let happen."
Marina Jiménez is a senior feature writer with The Globe and Mail.
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