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Cuban doctors in eye of Venezuelan hurricane

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ANDREA RODRIGUEZ | April 16, 2014 06:08 AM EST | AP

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — When Judith Faraiz's son was near death after a severe motorcycle accident, she put his life in the hands of God and Cuban doctors.

Like many in Petare, a sprawling hillside slum of crumbling brick buildings on the eastern outskirts of Caracas, Faraiz has come to rely on Cuban physicians for free health services in a country where private care is too expensive for the poor and public hospitals have a dismal reputation.

The link is vital for both governments: In exchange for the services of its doctors and other professionals, Havana gets an estimated $3.2 billion in cut-rate Venezuelan oil that is a lifeline for Cuba's ailing economy. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, for his part, relies on social programs such as these to shore up support among his poor power base even as his approval ratings fall hand-in-hand with a faltering economy.

The Cuban doctors are the most visible symbol of the controversial collaboration between the two countries during 15 years of socialist rule in Venezuela, and increasingly they are a flashpoint for the violent unrest that has rocked the country since February and is blamed for at more than 40 deaths.

The mostly middle- and upper-class protesters who have taken to the streets say their country is following the path of Fidel Castro's one-party Communist system. They see the doctors-for-oil deal as an intolerable giveaway of Venezuela's vast petroleum wealth, even as the country suffers from 50 percent inflation and chronic shortages of basic goods like flour, cooking oil and toilet paper, not to mention a homicide rate among the world's highest.

Unsubstantiated rumors have circulated that Cuban military advisers are helping to crush the anti-government demonstrations. Some allege that Havana is essentially running the Venezuelan military and that the Cuban doctors lack proper training.

For supporters of Maduro's government, however, the doctors are an example of concrete improvements in their lives delivered under the late President Hugo Chavez and now his hand-picked successor.

Faraiz, a 54-year-old former domestic worker, said doctors at a public hospital wanted to amputate one of her son's legs, which had been horribly mutilated. He was prescribed a daily dose of antibiotics that the family couldn't afford and contracted a serious infection.

So she took him to the Cuban doctors, who saved the leg by surgically implanting eight nails and also healed his fractured cranium. The care, and some of his medicine, didn't cost a cent.

Faraiz fears that if the opposition ever takes power it would follow through on a promise to alter terms of the Cuba-Venezuela relationship, and the doctors would be forced to leave.

"It will ruin the poor," she said, sitting in her low-ceiling living room in Petare.

While official figures are not public, Cuba is believed to have sent around 100,000 professionals, mostly health care workers but also athletes, engineers and even circus artists, to Venezuela since Chavez came to power in 1999. An estimated 31,000 Cuban health workers, about 11,000 of them doctors, are believed to be working in the country today.

Venezuela pays the Cubans a stipend for living expenses and they sleep in dormitories at the clinics where they work. Havana also pays them $425 a month — about 20 times the average government salary back home.

Cuba has similar programs in developing nations around the globe that help burnish its international image, but none as important as the one in Venezuela. Chavez was long the Caribbean island's staunchest political and economic ally, and he spent months in Havana in 2013 for cancer treatments before he died.

The South American country sends about 100,000 barrels of oil every day to Cuba that accounts for half the island's domestic energy consumption, University of Texas energy analyst Jorge Pinon says. Venezuela also ships oil on preferential terms to other poor nations such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

When the Cuban doctors arrived in Petare five years ago, residents initially eyed them with suspicion and sometimes slammed the door in their faces, said Yurisleidy Varela, a 29-year-old Cuban physician who directs the local clinic that treated Faraiz's son.

Today the Cubans who staff "La Urbina" clinic are welcomed as they walk the mazelike streets making house calls and vaccinating children. The clinic offers free emergency, ophthalmology and pediatric care, as well as minimally invasive surgical procedures. Its several dozen staffers also minister to gunshot victims and drug and alcohol addicts.

But outside the slums and poor rural communities of Venezuela, the Cubans have become a focus of anti-government rage.

In February, dozens of people carrying signs saying "Cuba go home" physically harassed a Cuban baseball team playing in a tournament on Margarita Island. More recently, assailants burned down a medical clinic staffed by Cubans in the western city of Barquisimeto.

Some of the Cubans say the violence has them spooked.

"One never knows what can happen," Varela said. "If they're attacking their own institutions, imagine how it is with us Cubans."

There's no sign that the doctors will decamp anytime soon, and Maduro has vowed the anti-Cuba sentiment will only "bolster our conviction that we must strengthen our brotherhood."

Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College in California, said that besides domestic political concerns, continuing the Cuba-Venezuela alliance is a way for Maduro to send a message to Washington that has been echoed in recent years by like-minded presidents around the region.

"Cuba was a model for this generation" of leftist leaders, Tinker Salas said, "and I think it is, in a way, a way to declare one's autonomy and independence."

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP