Venezuela Wins Hearts and Minds with Free Eye Care

Venezuelan ophthalmologists have operated on thousands of patients from 18 countries who either could not afford or had no access to eye surgery at home. The program, dubbed the "Miracle Mission" by Venezuela, is raising the regional profile of Chavez, who has become the chief rival to the United States in Latin America.

O CUMARE DEL TUY, VENEZUELA – Blind in his left eye from a cataract, Celestino Granados was stumbling through his twilight years in El Salvador when Hugo Chavez changed his life.

Chavez’s government paid to fly Granados and about 110 other Salvadorans to Venezuela where, free of charge, their cataracts were removed and other eye ailments were corrected by government-employed physicians. Now, Granados has his vision back, and Venezuela’s socialist president has another group of fervent admirers in the Central American nation.

“I see perfectly. I can even see the color of your eyes,” said a tearful Granados, 73, a few days after his operation. “This is the best government Venezuela could have.”

Just as Chavez’s political mentor, Fidel Castro, won support for the Cuban revolution by dispatching thousands of physicians abroad to treat the poor, the Venezuelan leader is trying to win hearts and minds in Latin America with his own brand of doctor diplomacy.

Venezuelan ophthalmologists have operated on thousands of patients from 18 countries who either could not afford or had no access to eye surgery at home. The program, dubbed the “Miracle Mission” by Venezuela, is raising the regional profile of Chavez, who has become the chief rival to the United States in Latin America.

“When patients get their eyesight back, they see how beautiful life can be,” said Belkis Galavis, one of nine ophthalmologists at the public hospital in Ocumare del Tuy, 30 miles south of Caracas. “And, of course, they feel very happy with this program and with the person who is leading it: President Chavez.”

Eye patient ‘poaching’?

But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Mirtha Noguera, president of the Venezuelan Ophthalmology Society, suspects that one of the main goals of the “Miracle Mission” is to infuse patients with Chavez’s ideology.

In turn, some governments that oppose the Venezuelan’s politics and anti-American rhetoric seem irritated by the prospect of Chavez riding to the rescue of the poor. Last year, when the Caracas government began flying Mexican Indians here for eye surgery, then-Health Minister Julio Frenk criticized the program, saying it was unnecessary because the Mexican government has its own health service.

At the Pan American Congress of Ophthalmologists in Cancun last month, doctors complained that Venezuela was “invading” their nations to poach eye patients.

But Magaly Hernandez de Belisario, a physician who heads Venezuela’s Blindness Prevention Group, said many countries do not provide decent eye care for the poor and that they gladly accept visits by volunteer eye doctors on trips financed by religious organizations and civic clubs.

Partly in response to Chavez – who paid an unannounced visit to a convalescing Castro in Havana last week but denies following the model of communist Cuba – the Bush administration has engaged in its own doctor diplomacy. It has dispatched the USNS Comfort, a naval hospital ship, to Latin American ports where American military medics provide free care for the poor.

Hernandez said many doctors at the Cancun gathering were elite establishment types who rarely do anything for the poor. She said their objections to free, life-changing eye surgery were ludicrous.

“It’s a political problem because Chavez is viewed as a communist,” Hernandez said. “The correct thing would be for each country to have universal health coverage. But that’s not the way it is.”

Cataracts widespread

Venezuela’s eye program began by accident.

Three years ago, the Chavez government launched a campaign to wipe out illiteracy only to realize that many elderly participants had trouble reading because of problems with their vision.

A 2004 survey concluded that more than half of all blind people in Venezuela, about 63,000, suffered from cataracts, a clouding of the eye’s lens that can be corrected through surgery.

Another widespread malady in the country is pterygium, a fibrous membrane that gradually covers the eye.

Both ailments are thought to be caused, in part, by exposure to sunlight and are common among poor people in tropical climates who spend long periods working outdoors.

But many public hospitals in Latin America lack ophthalmologists, microscopes and surgical instruments. At private clinics, cataract surgery can cost $1,500.

Thus, many poor people never receive treatment, said Hernandez.

Chavez turned to Castro for help. Home to a public health system considered among the best in Latin America, Cuba had been sending physicians to work in Venezuelan slums in a barter deal for oil. The two leaders arranged to fly patients to Havana for eye surgery.

Venezuelan ophthalmologists, however, said it made little economic sense to fly patients to Cuba when they could be treated at home.

So, the Chavez government began upgrading Venezuelan hospitals with the staff and equipment to handle local and foreign eye patients.

At the hospital in Ocumare del Tuy, for instance, the number of monthly eye surgeries has jumped from 100 to 500 in the past two years. About 20 percent of the patients are foreigners, who also receive free air fare, lodging and meals.

6 million is the goal

The goal of the Venezuelan program is to correct or bring back the eyesight of 6 million patients by 2015.

Several Salvadoran patients in Ocumare del Tuy pointed out that their government never offered to fix their eyes. Like many prospective patients in Latin America, they learned about the Venezuelan program through local politicians.

In the Salvadoreans’ case, it was activists from their country’s main opposition party, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a former rebel army that has close ties to Chavez.

Many of the Salvadoran patients are impoverished peasant farmers, housewives or retirees who had never boarded an airplane.

Arriving in Venezuela, they were given red T-shirts, the color of Chavez’s political party, and housed in a barracks decorated with murals of the Venezuelan leader.

All along, camera operators filmed them for pro-government TV spots.

Overwhelmed by the miracle of regaining their eyesight, the Salvadorans were happy to cooperate.

“I used to recognize people by their voices,” said Sofia Mejia, 72, blind in her left eye before from a cataract. “They gave me my vision back. I never expected this.”