Dario Lopez-mills  /  AP
Luis Xool, 78, sits on a hammock at his home while relatives stand near the door in the town of Pino Suarez, in Mexico Yucatan peninsula on April 1. Xool, who is almost completely blind, will travel to Venezuela to undergo eye operations, courtesy of Hugo Chavez's government.
updated 4/5/2006 10:57:39 PM ET 2006-04-06T02:57:39

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is helping Luis Xool, a Mayan Indian who speaks only a few words of Spanish, recover something he lost 24 months ago: his sight.

Xool is among 90 Indians from the Yucatan who will go to Venezuela on Thursday for free eye care — an all-expense paid trip courtesy of Chavez that has raised accusations the Venezuelan leader is trying to influence Mexico’s July 2 presidential race.

Xool (pronounced “shawl”), who has cataracts, had never even heard of Venezuela or Chavez before his daughter-in-law told him of “Mission Miracle,” a project that is paying for poor Latin Americans to have eye operations in Venezuela.

The program began in 2004 as part of an agreement with Cuba, which volunteered eye surgeons. It was expanded to 11 countries, including Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala. It has benefited a total of 135,340 people, according to the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico City.

Presidential candidates Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party contend the program is designed to boost the campaign of leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is often compared to Chavez.

Venezuela offered the operations to residents of the Yucatan peninsula town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto at the request of the town’s mayor, Eliseo Bahena, a member of Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party.

Mexican official: Thanks but no thanks
Mexico’s secretary of health, Julio Frenk, says the Venezuelan help isn’t needed, because Mexico has its own program. “Mexico has enough capacity to cover the demand for cataract surgery,” Frenk said last week. “In fact, a good number of ophthalmologists from Latin America are trained here.”

However, town officials said the poor have not received adequate information on how to get care in Mexico.

Some fear Lopez Obrador will be the latest of a wave of leftist leaders to be elected in Latin America. There are concerns the former Mexico City mayor, known for his government handout programs, could reverse years of conservative fiscal policy that has brought relative economic stability to Mexico.

There have been rumors Venezuela is helping to finance Lopez Obrador’s campaign, allegations Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute is looking into. Both Lopez Obrador and the Venezuelan government have denied that, noting Chavez and the Mexican leftist have never even met.

Thousands of Venezuelans have received free surgery through the program, and thousands of Cuban doctors are working in Venezuela. But critics point to shortages of supplies and medical equipment in Venezuela’s public hospitals, and say it should do more to fix its own health care system.

Seeing the light, perhaps
The controversy over the program is news to 78-year-old Xool, who was interviewed by The Associated Press in his two-room, stone-and-stick hut 620 miles east of Mexico City.

If he regains his vision, Xool says he plans to vote, although he didn’t say for whom. In 2000, he voted for the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

As a result of the cataracts, he is blind in his right eye and can only see shafts of light in his left eye. He never went to school and the farthest he has traveled is 60 miles to the state capital. Like the other Indians in his community, he is a subsistence farmer.

“A peasant is always a peasant,” he said in broken Spanish in an attempt to explain his humble surroundings.

His biggest worry is not the operation, but the plane ride to Venezuela. “It is dangerous,” he said of traveling by air.

From Cancun to Caracas
The program director, Gilberto Chan, said 618 people applied for free eye care. Of those, 142 needed cataract or other surgery, 246 needed glasses and the rest didn’t have major problems.

The Venezuelan government will send a plane to Cancun to pick up the Mexican patients and take them to Caracas for surgery.

Nestor Gonzalez, business attache for the Venezuelan Embassy, said he had no immediate estimate of the program’s cost, but the most complicated cases could cost as much as $10,000.

Pastora Chable Kan, 50, a Mayan housewife, said a private clinic in Mexico said her operation would cost about $1,300. Multiplied by the 90 patients from Mexico, that would put the program at over $100,000, plus transport and housing costs.

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