By Esteban Israel
HAVANA- For hundreds of thousands of poor people from the Andes to the Himalayas, the legacy of Cuba’s ailing communist leader Fidel Castro will be not revolutionary war but eyesight.
For decades, the now ailing Castro, wh
o temporarily handed over power to his brother Raul on Monday, prescribed armed revolution to cure the Third World’s ills. But more recently he has preferred to export doctors to treat poor people in the undeveloped world.
The programs have expanded rapidly thanks to financial support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, leader of the world’s eighth-largest oil producer and Castro’s main ally.
Medical diplomacy is helping Cuba gain friends in its ideological battle with Washington. But at home, Cubans have mixed feelings about so many of their doctors going abroad. It has affected the free health-care system that once boasted a family doctor on every block.
“Every time you go to a clinic now there is a line of 30 people,” one young man said. “There are no more family doctors, now there is a community doctor.”
Castro has described the program’s security benefits.
“These programs make us stronger, since it is not easy for the empire to destroy a people giving back vision to millions of Latin Americans,” Castro said in July, making a pejorative reference to the United States which calls him a menace to regional stability.
Castro, 79, issued a statement this week saying he was not sure when he would recover after intestinal surgery. No details of his treatment have been released but the Communist Party said on Thursday it would stay in control no matter what happens to the veteran leader.
Cuba has 20,000 doctors and 10,000 other medical personnel working abroad. The majority are in Venezuela, which in turn supplies Cuba with 98,000 barrels of oil per day on generous terms, a boost worth billions of dollars that has helped overcome the crisis that followed the demise of its former benefactor the Soviet Union.
The government says service exports, mainly medical, became its most important source of foreign exchange in 2005 at around $2.9 billion. That has happened “even though Cuba continues to provide medical cooperation absolutely free of charge to more than 60 countries,” Castro has said.
Bolivia, after the recent election of leftist President Evo Morales, is now the second most important recipient of Cuban medical aid, followed by Ecuador, Haiti and Central America countries, all without charge.
The government says Cuban medical personnel show the same courage as the 350,000 soldiers who fought in places like Angola and Ethiopia during the Cold War.
“Our doctors will be like our soldiers in Angola 30 years ago,” Economy and Planning Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said.
Cuba sent its first doctors abroad in 1960, a year after Castro swept into power. Since then more than 104,000 doctors and paramedics have served in more than 100 countries.
When an earthquake struck Pakistan last year, 2,500 Cuban doctors were there, attending to 1.6 million Pakistanis. Today some are in Indonesia, which was hit by a quake in June.
Castro even offered the United States 1,500 doctors after Hurricane Katrina, an offer that was refused.
The most ambitious program is “Plan Miracle,” which aims to restore the sight of six million Latin Americans in a decade. Some 260,000 people, the majority Venezuelan, have been operated on for cataracts and other problems since 2004. — Reuter