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Cablegate: Venezuelans Performing Eye Surgeries and More

VZCZCXYZ0005
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHAC #0720/01 2981457
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 241457Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY ASUNCION
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 7332
INFO RUCNMER/MERCOSUR COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS PRIORITY 0385
RUEHUB/USINT HAVANA PRIORITY 0178

C O N F I D E N T I A L ASUNCION 000720

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR WHA/BSC MDASCHBACH AND WHA/AND RROBINSON

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/24/2028
TAGS: PREL PROP PGOV SOCI CU VZ PA
SUBJECT: VENEZUELANS PERFORMING EYE SURGERIES AND MORE

REF: A. 07 ASUN 263
B. ASUN 363
C. 07 ASUN 576

Classified By: DCM Michael J. Fitzpatrick for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

-Q----
SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Venezuela's ""Miracle Mission"" Program has sent
several thousand Paraguayans abroad for free eye surgeries
and ""leadership"" training in Cuba and Venezuela. The last
Paraguayan government signed an agreement with Venezuela in
April 2006 to launch the program, and the Lugo administration
extended it following Lugo's August inauguration. The
program operates without Health Ministry oversight and
Paraguay's civil aviation authority has no control over the
program's chartered flights operating among Paraguay,
Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba. Many, perhaps a majority, of
the program's participants, in fact, are students who do not
need eye surgeries but rather travel to Venezuela for
long-term training to expand the ""Bolivarian Revolution.""
Health Ministry officials and the press are beginning to
scrutinize the program's true mission and demand increased
accountability. END SUMMARY.

-----------------------------
THE ""MIRACLE MISSION"" PROGRAM
-----------------------------

2. (SBU) XXXXXXXXXXXX first told
Pol/Econ Chief in July that Venezuela's ""Miracle Mission""
Program operating out of Ciudad del Este's Regional Hospital
offers free eye surgeries and ""leadership"" training to
Paraguayans in Cuba and Venezuela. She stated that the
Venezuelan government transports passengers via chartered
planes to either Venezuela or Cuba. She said that there have
been 18 flights in total to Venezuela since 2007, with each
flight carrying approximately 100 passengers who travel to
Cuba or Venezuela for eye surgery and up to ten days of
recuperation in military hospitals -- or for up to four
months of ""leadership"" training. The newspaper ABC Color
reported October 9 that only about 40 percent of the
program's participants are ""real"" patients; the remaining
passengers are typically college students who receive up to
four months of ""social leadership"" training in Venezuela.

3. (SBU) Paraguay's Foreign Ministry signed an agreement
with Venezuela in April 2006 to launch the program, and the
Lugo administration extended it following Lugo's August
inauguration (septel). Although the program initially sent
patients to Cuba for surgery, most patients now travel to
Venezuela for surgeries performed by Venezuelan military
doctors. XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that the quality of Venezuelan
eye surgeries was substantially better than those performed
in Cuba, although patients who returned to Paraguay following
surgery still received inadequate follow-up care (ref A).
Although the Cuban government's bilateral medical agreement
with Paraguay expired in 2006, Cubans continue to operate in
Paraguay and refers patients to the ""Miracle Mission"" Program
(ref B). The Cuban government concluded an agreement with
the Municipality of Maria Auxiliadora, Itapua Department, in
2007 to support its local medical center. XXXXXXXXXXXX
estimated that there were 17 Cubans working in Maria
Auxiliadora. She expressed concern that the Cubans were also
operating in Paraguay with inadequate oversight. Moreover,
the 100-plus medical students returning from Cuba are
frustrated by their Qability to meet the requirements to
practice medicine in Paraguay. (NOTE: There are currently
around 800 Paraguayans now studying in Cuba. END NOTE).

4. (C) Paraguay's civil aviation authority (DINAC) has little
oversight authority over the ""Miracle Mission"" Program's
chartered flights operating between Paraguay, Venezuela,
Bolivia, and Cuba. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that DINAC receives
information chartered flights just minutes before they
arrive, and is not authorized to (and does not) conduct
inspections of the planes, pilots, or cargo. She noted that
the Health Ministry received reports that these flights
transported shipments -- supposedly containing medical
supplies -- in-country without inspection by Paraguayan
authorities. Furthermore, XXXXXXXXXXXX noted that
passengers' only travel documentation is a letter identifying
them as a program participant. Paraguayan immigration
authorities do not process or track individuals entering or
leaving the country under this program. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated
that Paraguayan health officials requested further
information about ""Miracle Mission"" flights from the Foreign
Ministry under President Duarte, but the ministry refused to
cooperate with health officials.

-------------------------------
CRITICISMS OF ""MIRACLE MISSION""
-------------------------------

5. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that many of the program's
participants are students who do not need eye surgeries but
rather travel to Venezuela for long-term training, prompting
the press to claim that the program serves as a front for
spreading the ""Bolivarian Revolution."" There is no
information on how the program selects its patients, although
XXXXXXXXXXXX said she believed many are from San Pedro
Department. (NOTE: San Pedro remains one of Paraguay's
poorest departments. Lugo served there for 11 years as a
bishop -- and the area remains a tinder box of social protest
against Brazilian soy producers and large-scale agriculture.
END NOTE.) XXXXXXXXXXXX also claimed that passengers received
propaganda about the ""Bolivarian Revolution"" in flight.
""Miracle Mission"" Program director Pedro Espinoza told ABC
Color October 17 that participants receive only medical
literature and recommends that participants avoid politics.
Several patients who participated in the program denied that
they were subject to political manipulation.

6. (SBU) While ""Miracle Mission"" began under then-President
Nicanor Duarte Frutos, ABC Color reported that Lugo did not
consult with the Health Ministry prior to extending the
program, and that the program operates without Health
Ministry oversight. Espinoza defended the program by arguing
that it has the support of the Paraguayan government, the
Alto Parana Department government, Ciudad del Este Municipal
government, the Health Ministry, and local doctors. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that health officials have limited access to
the program's office and that the Health Ministry has limited
information on its activities. She said that a surprise
inspection by health officials revealed that the program's
office lacked ophthalmological equipment and that no
ophthalmological professionals were on staff.

-------
COMMENT
-------

7. (C) Operating out of Ciudad del Este's local hospital and
regional airport has allowed Venezuela's ""Miracle Mission""
Program to operate ""below the radar,"" outside government or
press review. But the Health Ministry and the press are
beginning to scrutinize its true mission and demand increased
accountability. The program is classic Chavez, a conduit for
sending Paraguayan students to Venezuela for Bolivarian-style
leadership training under the guise of a free eye surgery
campaign. Unlike the U.S. Embassy's medical diplomacy
program -- which furnishes donated artificial lenses and
medical supplies to help local NGOs perform over 200 free eye
surgeries in Paraguay since 2007 (ref C) -- ""Miracle Mission""
is clearly more about indoctrination in a particular social
and political vision than it is about improving actual ocular
acuity. Like his predecessor, President Lugo has been
supportive of the program, and thus far allowed it to operate
virtually carte blanche. However, in light of increasingly
negative public attention, the Health Ministry may assert
some authority over the program. END COMMENT.

Please visit us at http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/wha/asuncion

AYALDE

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