- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 1999

CARACAS, Venezuela Members of a Cuban medical team sent to help the victims of this month's disastrous mudslides are being criticized as incompetent and arrogant by Venezuelan doctors who are annoyed by their attitude.

Cuba sent about 400 doctors and medics to Venezuela after heavy rains on Dec. 15 unleashed mudslides that killed as many as 30,000 people and left an estimated 200,000 homeless. The island nation takes great pride in its health care system and sends doctors to sympathetic countries around the world.

But Dr. Ricardo Alfonzo, speaking for a group of Venezuelan colleagues, described the Cubans as poorly trained and arrogant in remarks quoted yesterday by the El Universal newspaper.

"Cuban medicine is one of the biggest lies of the century, a primitive medicine which harks back to the 1950s and lacks even the slightest acquaintance with modern medicine," he said.

"Cuban medics without any preparation or knowledge attempted to teach us how to treat Venezuelan patients at emergency staging areas for survivors at Maiquetia airport," he said.

In the days immediately after the mudslides, Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel praised the Cuban assistance while barely mentioning the United States, which has made a major contribution to the rescue effort.

President Hugo Chavez turned the tables in public remarks Saturday evening, in which he thanked the United States and other aid donors but failed to mention Cuba.

"This Christmas is very special to Jesus … the revolutionary who came to struggle for the dispossessed," said Mr. Chavez, a left-leaning former coup leader who swept aside the old political parties with promises of reform.

Another Venezuelan doctor said views of the quality of Cuban medical care varied depending on the political leanings of the observers.

"There's a group who think Cuban doctors are not well prepared because it is a poor country," said Dr. Gustavo Alvarez, an internist, speaking from Civil Defense headquarters.

"Others believe in [Cuban President Fidel] Castro and say the Cubans are the best doctors in the world. Those physicians believe in them."

The Central University of Venezuela does not recognize Cuban medical degrees and requires three years of additional training before permitting Cubans to practice medicine, he said. But, he said he knows 10 Cuban doctors working for Venezuela's public health system, and they are all good doctors.

Cuba's reputation in Venezuela suffered another blow Saturday night when a Russian-built Cuban airliner crashed near Valencia after a flight from Havana, killing all 12 crew members and 10 passengers.

There was no immediate explanation for the crash of the plane, which was the state-owned Cubana de Aviacion airline's second major accident in less than a week. A Cuban jet crashed while attempting to land Tuesday at Guatemala City, killing 18.

The passenger plane had been scheduled to take home some of the Cuban doctors.

The cleanup continued Christmas Day and yesterday along the coast of Vargas province as heavy earth-moving equipment cleared roads and survivors searched for food, water and loved ones.

Jessica Delgado, 19, walked up the huge river bed that had been the neighborhood of La Vegita in the port city of La Guaira, with the smell of death seeping from the hardened mud and rocks that buried as many as 3,000 people.

Kicking at the mud and debris at her feet, she pointed out the roof of the kindergarten where she had worked.

"I think the children are mostly dead," she said. "I don't see them around anymore."

She said Mr. Chavez had barely finished speaking on television on the night of a referendum that approved his new constitution when the electricity went out in a driving rainstorm. Then the flood of mud, stones, trees and debris hit the area.

"I heard the screams for a long time," said Miss Delgado, who survived because her house was perched on the slopes above the flood plain.

A Civil Defense official said some 70,000 survivors from La Guaira and other damaged towns in Vargas province have been airlifted to shelters in Caracas and around the country. Thousands more may have walked out of the disaster zone.

Some 200,000 people have been made homeless, he said, out of the estimated 400,000 people in Vargas. Many of the rest are isolated by damaged roads and will no longer have jobs.

Dr. Alvarez said many of the survivors suffered from psychological shock. "Some of them have not spoken for a week," he said.

Officials are also seeking homes for about 200 dogs and cats whose owners are dead or have fled to relief centers.

Maiquetia airport opened to international passenger flights yesterday for the first time since the catastrophe hit. The port at La Guaira was to open for companies wishing to retrieve goods from the 30,000 shipping containers on the docks.

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