Turned off by long lines at state hospitals, some 800 Ticos have traveled to Venezuela for free eye surgery over the last few years, 93 last month alone, on a gift from President Hugo Chávez’s government.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Costa Rica is now expanding the program, dubbed Operation Miracle, which has treated thousands of other Latin Americans since October 2005.
About 88 percent of Costa Ricans are insured under the state’s socialized health care system (Caja), but long waits for appointments drive some Ticos to seek other options.
“The lines are very long (at the Caja), and there aren’t enough opthamologists,” said Fernando Sandí, who works for the Caja as a nurse but still opted for surgery for himself in Venezuela.
Under Operation Miracle, Venezuelan doctors travel to Costa Rica to examine Ticos with eye trouble. Patients with cataracts or pterygium – a benign growth on the eye – qualify for a trip to Venezuela.
The Venezuelan government pays for the charter airplane, the surgery and housing and food during the patients’ 10-day stay in Venezuela. Ticos need only pay the $26 Costa Rican airport tax. Each patient also receives a goodie bag with pajamas, underwear, slippers, deoderant, soap, shampoo and talcum
Within a month, Venezuelan doctors return to Costa Rica to check on the patients’ recovery.
Rolando Mora, the only opthamologist at Hospital Raul Blanco Cervantes, said cataracts and pterygium are common in Costa Rica, in part because of the strong sun. Still, at the most crowded hospitals, Ticos can wait years for surgery, he said.
At Raul Blanco Cervantes, in downtown San José, Ticos must wait a year just to get an appointment with an opthomologist. Patients with cataracts could wait another two months for surgery.
About a dozen people contact the hospital every day to make an appointment with an opthomologist, but they are turned down: The hospital is not even scheduling visits until the end of the year.
“It’s not pretty,” Mora said. “So much (of the system) has collapsed.”
Meanwhile, Sandí’s wife called an official at the Venezuelan embassy in May to schedule a checkup for him with a Venezuelan doctor at Alunasa, a Venezuelan-owned aluminum processing plant, in early June.
After the doctor diagnosed Sandí with pterygium, he was flown to Venezuela for surgery June 16 and returned to Costa Rica late last week.
“The difference is that (Venezuela) has more opthamologists, more professionals and better equipment than we do,” he said.
While Caja hospitals turn people away, the Venezuelan government, flush with oil money, is looking to attract more patients. In past months, Venezuelan doctors have performed exams only at the ambassador’s house in San José and at Alunasa in the Pacific slope town of Esparza.
But in June, doctors visited other parts of the country, including rural and indigenous areas.
They went to Palmares, a coffee town northwest of San José; Talamanca in the southern Caribbean; Juan Viñas, a sugar town on the road to Turrialba to the east; and Ciudad Quesada in north-central Costa Rica.
“The embassy’s new policy is to go to all of Costa Rica – not make people come here” to San José, said Eduardo Medina, who works on Operation Miracle at the embassy.
“We are going to cover all of Costa Rica, from north to south and east to west.”
The new outreach efforts have attracted more Ticos to the program. Two Venezuelan state planes are set to transport 186 Costa Rican patients to Venezuela in July – more than twice the usual monthly number in the past two years.
Medina said the program was purely humanitarian, not political. Still, the patients were given posters of Chávez, gesturing grandly under the words, “Here peace, fatherland, love, joy and hope will always triumph.”
“This treatment is not (a gift) from one government to another,” Medina said. “It’s (a gift) from the government of Venezuela to the people of Costa Rica.”
So how is this playing out politically? After all, according to the Associated Press, President Oscar Arias has called Chávez a “dictator” whose foreign policies are “nothing more than an (effort) to stay in power” for life.
Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, through his spokesperson Pablo Gueren, refused to comment on Operation Miracle. Vladimir de la Cruz, recently appointed
Costa Rican ambassador to Venezuela, said the two governments should sign an accord to recognize and regulate Operation Miracle.
“Then maybe more people could benefit, maybe the Caja … could participate,” he said. “(There has) not been any official recognition of (this program), which has very positive repercusiones for the Costa Rican society.” ¦