In early February, a week after Evo Morales was sworn in as Bolivia’s president, Cuban doctors arrived in the country to care for survivors of devastating floods. Seven hundred Cuban medical professionals are still there. They’ve cared for 500,000 Bolivians and set up 20 fully equipped hospitals. They work in 180 municipalities and nine provinces.

Cuban ophthalmologists have operated on an estimated 10,000 people in Bolivia and 2,000 more in hospitals in Cuba. They are part of Cuba’s Operation Milagro (Miracle), a hemisphere-wide program that has provided free curative eye surgery for hundreds of thousands of people.

Under recent agreements, Cuba will be training 7,000 young Bolivians as doctors, and Bolivia, with Cuba’s help, will train some 5,000 more.

On June 1 the Bolivian Medical Society organized a 24-hour strike to protest Cuban doctors practicing in Bolivia without official domestic certification. The society spokesperson pointed out that 10,000 Bolivian doctors are unemployed. Their government lacks money to pay them.

However, many observers say that even with monetary support, few Bolivian doctors would opt to live among poor patients to practice their profession. They have traditionally only served the better-off sections of the population in the big cities.

Hundreds of protesting patients marched in La Paz on June 2. One of them told a reporter, “My operation [for cataracts] lasted 15 minutes, and it was free. Doctors here in Bolivia wanted to charge me 1,500 Bolivianos,” about $200.

Another said, “When Bolivian doctors graduate from the Public University of La Paz, they have taken our money and then they don’t want anything to do with the poor.”

Above their heads a sign proclaimed, “One thousand thanks to the Cuban people.”

Cuban medical outreach is by no means limited to countries with governments that share Cuba’s egalitarian notions. On June 3, 135 Cuban doctors left for Indonesia to care for earthquake victims there. Last week the last of some 1,200 Cuban doctors returned from Pakistan, where for six months they ministered to 1.5 million survivors of last October’s earthquake.

Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, too, has launched ambitious health care projects. It recently sent 900,000 doses of vaccines to Bolivia, and has announced plans for converting a Caracas cardiology hospital into a center for diagnosis and surgical care for children’s heart disease aimed at serving poor children throughout Latin America.

Chavez, attending the first graduation ceremonies at Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine in August 2005, promised that Venezuela would build a replica of the Cuban school where thousands of medical students from throughout Latin America and Africa would be educated at no charge. He announced on May 21 that Venezuela’s school will be ready in October to accept 500 Latin American and Caribbean students plus 1,000 students from Bolivia.

The school, now under construction, will be located in Guri, a small city in central Venezuela. Students will take premedical courses there and later on will receive on-the-job training from Cuban and Venezuelan doctors working with Mission Barrio Adentro, a neighborhood-oriented social welfare program. The school will be named after French physician Alejandro Prospero Reverend, who assisted Simon Bolivar, the legendary 19th-century Latin American independence hero.

Under the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, the agreement reached by Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba to prioritize South American unity, plans are under way to train 200,000 Latin American and Caribbean doctors over the next 10 years.