- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Nearly 600 Cuban doctors have arrived in Bolivia since the new government took power, along with waves of Cuban and Venezuelan teachers and social workers, on a mission that critics fear is more political than humanitarian.

The leftist government of President Evo Morales says the foreign workers are providing badly needed relief to poor areas hit by recent floods and support for a new literacy program.

But the political opposition and some civic leaders charge that the visitors have been sent by presidents Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez to help their Bolivian ally consolidate political control — echoing U.S. criticism of a similar Cuban program in Venezuela.

“The Cubans are setting up the framework for a Castroite system in Bolivia. It’s very worrying,” said popular radio commentator Arturo Mendivil. He and other critics accuse the Cubans of organizing neighborhood vigilante groups modeled on Cuba’s notorious “committees for the defense of the revolution.”

Mr. Morales has made no secret of the program. When he visited the oil town of Camiri last month to announce the nationalization of Bolivia’s hydrocarbons, he was accompanied by 42 Cuban doctors and teachers.

Responding to congressional inquiries, the Ministry of Health last week listed 591 Cuban doctors who have come to Bolivia since January. According to the report, most are interns in general medicine as well as members of the Cuban Communist Party and the communist youth movement.

Some have previous experience in aid missions to Central America and various parts of Africa, including Namibia and Zimbabwe, the ministry said. Mr. Castro for decades has sent doctors to Third World countries as a centerpiece of his diplomacy, and more recently has sent doctors and teachers to Venezuela in exchange for discounted oil.

“We are here to help our brother nation of Bolivia,” Carlos Marin, a physician from Havana, told The Washington Times at a Santa Cruz hotel where 140 Cuban health workers stayed.

The team members wore red T-shirts and carried 30-pound backpacks, in which they said they carried three months of medical supplies. They said they had been dispatched to Bolivia after the United States rejected Mr. Castro’s offer to send them to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Marin dismissed the charges that the group was involved in political activity as “propaganda.” He said he was a specialist in tropical medicine and that the unit’s mission was “preventing the spread of disease.”

The health practitioners included a large number of cheerful looking nurses. But they were accompanied by stern looking men who kept a close watch around the hotel lobby and declined to talk to a reporter.

While Cuban doctors generally are highly regarded for the quality of their training, some Bolivian health specialists are questioning the preparedness of the new arrivals.

Dr. Victor Hugo Parada, president of the Santa Cruz College of Medicine, said he has not been allowed to examine the professional qualifications of any of the Cuban doctors and receives regular complaints about their performance.

“We don’t know if they are qualified doctors or students. Neither do we have any documentation describing the duties which they are supposed to perform,” he said. Dr. Parada said he thinks the number of Cuban medical practitioners in the country may be as high as 2,000, more than three times what has been reported.

Health Minister Nila Heredia said the Cuban medical workers act with a “better social conscience” and “more affection” than their local counterparts. The government says they have attended to 84,776 patients and saved 158 lives since their arrival.

But written complaints from Bolivian doctors and patients accuse the Cubans of low professional standards and abusive behavior. Dr. Jaime Serrudo, a hospital director in the town of Vallegrande, complained in a letter dated March 6 that four Cuban doctors assigned to his emergency room “are not prepared for their tasks, being ignorant of basic procedures in surgical assistance.”

Another woman complained in a March 27 letter that she had been sexually molested by Cuban doctors, saying that since their arrival they had “dedicated themselves to getting drunk, public scandal and proselytizing about the revolution.”

In several towns throughout Bolivia, municipal authorities have complained about having to bear the costs of the Cuban health missions.

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