Sunday, September 7, 2008

Those doctors

You might have heard that Venezuela and Cuba are close these days, with Cuba sending doctors, light bulb installation crews and zoo animals to Venezuela in return for oil. What is less known is that Cuba's decades-old policy of sending doctors all over the world is now being bankrolled, at least in part, by Venezuela.

The picture is of Huachacalla, Bolivia, one of the loneliest towns I've ever visited. It's in the Altiplano, a plateau at about 3,500 meters (12,000 foot) elevation near the Chilean border, where (at least a couple months ago) the pavement of a sparkling new highway abruptly ended along with most taxi and microbus routes from La Paz. It's a place where arrival is easier than departure, as nobody owns a car and there's no traffic on the half-built highway. K and I got a ride in the back of a salt truck that thumped us along for an hour through an increasingly chilly twilight to Sapaya, an even lonelier town. In the nicest, nastiest and only hotel in town, which was built to pretty high standards, there were, in the morning, small brown pellets at the end of the hall, clear evidence that a sheep had been there at some point in the night. Locals gave various estimates of the population, but when they said there were "80 families in the pueblo" they meant that 80 families return to the town for an annual feast day. The full-time population of the living couldn't have exceeded 100. The main reason for either tourist or laborer to go there is Coipasa, site of a ghost town, a lot of salt, and clear evidence that Lonely Planet's writers don't always visit the places they write about.

But I digress. As usual. The picture on the left shows the view downhill past the army barracks. On the right is the view uphill to the town square, where old Aymaras were celebrating Day of the Sea. Someone stopped to chat with us. On learning I lived in Venezuela she said that was a good country, that Venezuela was providing Cuban doctors for this village. This woman must have been at least 50, as she looked 70, and she said it was the first full-time doctor in that town in her life.

I'm sure there are many messed up aspects of the program, known as Barrio Adentro, including corruption and the awesomely low wages of its employees. But hey, when it comes to aid programs, nobody's perfect. We were wandering through one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, a place where many people subsist on potatoes and llama meat squeezed from the thin, sandy soil and thin, dusty air. To stumble onto a Venezuelan-Cuban clinic there felt like we had come around a rock to find a grove of mango trees in full fruit, a morsel of tropical plenitude. It was also a reminder of how everywhere I go, people with the least stuff are the most generous.

No comments: