Venezuelan eye-opener

Jun 21, 2006 at 12:00 am

Once again, it seems the Bush administration's shortsighted policies regarding poverty relief have resulted in impoverished Detroiters looking to a foreign country for assistance.

Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez and Martin Sanchez, the country's Counsel General in Chicago, visited Detroit's International Institute last week with proposals for collaboration on health care and economic development. They came at the behest of state Rep. Lamar Lemmons III (D-Detroit) and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO).

The two men were greeted with hoots, cheers and red carnations from a crowd of about 100 people, including former City Council President Maryann Mahaffey. But the real eye-opener came when Alvarez told the audience that his country is preparing to organize free cataract surgery for Midwesterners through its Chicago consulate. Although this may prove logistically complicated — beneficiaries would have to circumvent the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba to receive treatment — Alvarez said he was confident arrangements could be made.

This would represent an expansion of Venezuela's aid effort that began last fall with a discounted heating-oil program that has benefited 200,000 U.S. families in at least seven Northeastern states. Detroit is currently trying to get into that act ("Well-oiled irony," MT, May 24).

The diplomat also said his country is prepared to use oil profits to establish a Detroit "social development fund" that could be used for health clinics or to help people create business cooperatives.

"This time we don't want to just give people assistance in winter," he said. "We'd like to try to help them out of poverty."

They seem to be doing that in their own country. According to a May report by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economics and Policy Research, conditions for the poor in Venezuela have improved since the people elected a socialist administration, which began directing oil revenues to social programs. More than half of Venezuelans now have access to free health care, while about 40 percent buy deeply discounted food at subsidized grocery stores.

The MWRO's Sylvia Orduno told the crowd she hoped the foreign visitors would help city residents broaden their perspectives.

"Sometimes Detroiters are not able to see outside their own neighborhood," she said. "But people are beginning to see how these struggles link up."

All of which leaves News Hits wondering: Is America now a Third World nation?

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]