"In my country, a surgery like that costs [US]$8,000", said Roberto Andrade from El Salvador about the operation he received in Cuba that removed cataracts from both his eyes, completely free of charge, according to a January 10 Miami Herald article. "I make $12 a day. I would never, ever, be able to save that much."
Andrade's operation was part of Mission Miracle, the joint Venezuelan-Cuban program whereby Venezuela provides the funds for poor people across the continent in need of eye operations to fly to Cuba, which has the facilities to carry out the treatment. According to the Miami Herald, more than 300,000 Venezuelans have had their eyesight restored by the program so far, as well as more than 100,000 citizens of 28 other countries.
Mission Miracle is just one of the ways that Venezuela, in alliance with socialist Cuba, is internationalising the gains of the pro-poor revolution that the government of socialist President Hugo Chavez is leading inside Venezuela. As part of its push for Latin American integration to challenge US domination of the region, Venezuela has initiated the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Aiming to help overcome the underdevelopment and poverty that much of Latin America has been condemned to, ALBA promotes trade based on cooperation and solidarity, rather than competition. Cuba and Venezuela signed a series of ALBA agreements in 2005. Bolivia also joined after left-wing indigenous President Evo Morales was elected in December 2005.
This push for pro-people integration gained momentum with the swearing in during January of two new left-leaning presidents in the region: Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
At his inauguration on January 10, attended by Chavez, Ortega announced Nicaragua's intention to become the fourth nation to join ALBA. A series of agreements whereby Venezuela will assist one of Latin America's poorest nations to develop were signed, and Chavez announced that his government would cancel without conditions Nicaragua's $31.3 million debt to Venezuela. Chavez announced plans to send 32 electricity generators to enable Nicaragua to overcome crippling energy shortages. As well as sending discounted oil, Venezuela will also invest in building an oil refinery in Nicaragua, as well as assist the aluminium industry and help establish a food distribution network.
In Ecuador for Correa's January 15 inauguration, Chavez signed a number of cooperative agreements between the two nations, which include the construction of new oil refineries — an important step for Ecuador, which is the region's fifth-largest oil exporter, but has to import petrol at high prices. The agreements also include the provision of credit for cooperatives and social programs, and joint ventures in oil exploration.
Ecuador agreed to join the Venezuelan-initiated Bank of the South (Bancosur), which aims to help Latin America free itself from the International Monetary Fund, both by providing the funds required to pay off debts as well as a non-exploitative source of credit. Chavez has said he will ask the Central Bank of Venezuela to put 10% of its international reserves into Bancosur.
The Bolivarian News Agency reported on January 19 that Chavez had urged other members of the Market of the South (Mercosur) to also put a portion of their international reserves into Bancosur. Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and, since last year, Venezuela, held its 31st summit on January 18 and 19 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although established within a free-market framework, Chavez issued a call to "decontaminate neoliberalism from Mercosur" at the summit, according to a January 20 Venezuelanalysis.com report. Mercosur agreed to begin negotiations to accept Bolivia as a full member. Morales is arguing for a similar transformation of Mercosur.
In Brazil, Chavez signed an agreement to begin one of Venezuela's boldest moves to push for regional integration — the construction of the Great Southern Gas Pipeline, set to be over 10,000 kilometres long, that would travel from Venezuela, through Brazil down to Argentina, with offshoots to Bolivia and Paraguay.
Given this, it is not surprising that CIA chief General Michael Hayden revealed that US President George Bush had asked him to "pay more attention" to the Chavez government during a briefing before the US House of Representative Committee on Intelligence, according to Venezuelanalysis.com. In September last year, the US government created a "special CIA mission manager" for Cuba and Venezuela. The previous CIA director and now deputy secretary of state, John Negroponte, told the committee that Venezuela was second, after Cuba, in resources assigned to it by the CIA, justifying this with the claim that Chavez has "literally spent millions and millions of dollars to support his extremist ideas in various parts of the world …"
Such "extremist ideas" as providing health care to the poor do appear to be spreading. Andrade, with his eyesight restored, told the Miami Herald "Now I am an ambassador: I go around El Salvador telling everyone how well I was treated."