Venezuela suspends Operation Miracle eye surgery flights to Peru

Bilateral relations between Peru and Venezuela will not be affected by Venezuela’s decision to pull the plug on its “Operation Miracle” activities in Peru, said Foreign Affairs Minister José Antonio García-Belaunde.

Armando José Laguna, Venezuela’s ambassador to Peru, announced Monday that “Operation Miracle” has been suspended here. The program is a joint initiative of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments that offers free eye surgery to low-income Latin Americans.

“Cooperation is voluntary,” said García-Belaunde, who also said that Peru never pressured Venezuela to withdraw its humanitarian program.

“If the government of Venezuela considers that it no longer should contribute or that its contribution is subject to misinterpretations or inquiries,” García-Belaunde added, “then it is in its full right and I have nothing to say, though I would have preferred (the program) to be more transparent.”

According to Laguna, the program was suspended in July after Peru refused to grant entry to a Venezuelan aircraft that was to transport 100 Peruvians to Venezuela for free ophthalmic surgery.

But García-Belaunde said Peru has always been straightforward, even offering to open the doors of three of its hospitals so that patients would not be obliged to travel to Venezuela, and did nothing but ask for more transparency.

“I believe there is a lot of suspicion and fear about what Venezuelan cooperation in Peru might imply,” said García-Belaunde in comments to RPP Radio.

“At one time or other there have been some who have tried to gain personal political benefit (from the program), yes, definitely,” added García-Belaunde, in reference to the Venezuela-funded Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or “ALBA houses”, which began to be established in several parts of Peru in 2004-2005.

The centers, operating independently of any government-to-government agreement, concentrated in poor areas of southern Peru such as Puno, offering access to the free medical care program and to free eye surgery and transport to Venezuela, including free room and board during recovery. The success of the program lent political popularity during Peru’s 2006 presidential campaign to candidate Ollanta Humala and his Partido Nacionalista Peruano, openly supported by Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez.

Although President Chavez enjoys close relations with Ecuador and Bolivia, Peru has remained distant to his oil-subsidized humanitarian programs, which it believes are used to spread his influence across the region and win over the hearts and minds of Peruvians.

President Alan García’s administration has argued that the Alba humanitarian and cultural centers in Peru are linked to the ALBA trade arm of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, which oppose U.S.-style free trade agreements.

In March this year, Congress voted unanimously to investigate the functions, organization and financing of these cultural centers, whose activities have been viewed with increased suspicion in Peru since late 2007, when a congressional subcommittee questioned the Cuban, Nicaraguan, Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors about ALBA activities. Many of the lawmakers believe the centers are ideological fronts for a political group, the Continental Bolivarian Committee, funded and orchestrated by Chavez. They have accused Chavez of trying to meddle in Peru’s internal affairs and “ideologically infiltrate the country”  to promote a regional revolution.

Under the joint Cuba-Venezuela “Operation Miracle” agreement, patients from Venezuela and other Latin American nations are flown to Cuba and Venezuela for eye surgery and other major treatments. As part of the deal, Cuba sends medical personnel to Venezuela, which in turn sells a large daily quantity of crude oil to Cuba at preferential rates. The program has scheduled to perform eye operations for six million low-income Latin Americans by 2016.

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