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Medical reservists boost US image by caring for Latin America's poor

Challenging Castro, Chávez

Army reservist Daniel Alley, a family doctor, examined the eyes of Juana Abrego last month at a clinic in Norteno, Panama. He also explained the cause of her children's stomach ailments. (Chris Kraul/Los Angeles Times)

NORTENO, Panama -- Dressed in sweaty surgical scrubs and grappling with a screaming 6-year-old girl as he pulled her abscessed tooth, dentist Jason Vogt didn't look the part of a diplomat.

But the US military reservist from Lincoln, Neb., was helping Uncle Sam score points in a high-stakes goodwill campaign playing out across Latin America in poor towns like this one.

The objective: challenging the socialist campaigns of Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and winning over people such as Lucrecia Guerra, the mother of the child whose tooth Vogt had just pulled.

The daylong walk to bring her daughter in for treatment was worth it, she said.

"The help he gives is free," Guerra said, "and I would have had to go very far to get it otherwise, even if I had been able to afford it."

The extraction might have saved the little girl's life, said Vogt, a professor at the University of Nebraska dental school. "She might have died from the infection if it had spread."

Vogt was part of a 350-strong US military task force called New Horizons that last month spent two weeks bivouacked in the remote jungle of Bocas del Toro Province, buffing the image of the United States as they help the poor.

During their deployment, the dozen or so medical reservists converted a school building into a clinic where they diagnosed ailments, dispensed medicine, and handed out eyeglasses to 6,000 residents, most of whom had never seen a doctor's office.

Other reservists built roads, schools, and clinics. Two Army Reserve veterinarians spent five days tramping through the rain forest in the mountains above Norteno looking for isolated farmers with livestock problems.

They were all part of the US medical diplomacy effort in Panama, which this year could see a 50 percent increase in the 2005 total of 30,000 patients treated by reservists.

The boost will come in the form of three deployments of reservist task forces this year instead of the customary two and with the stop of the Navy hospital ship Comfort in June off Panama's Caribbean port of Colon.

In addition, the Bush administration recently announced that the United States was underwriting the $4-million cost of a new regional medical training center in Panama City. Americans will help staff the center.

The aid push comes as Washington is playing catch-up in medical diplomacy against Castro and Chávez, at least from a public relations perspective.

With financial support from Chávez, the Venezuelan president fiercely opposed to Washington, Castro in recent years has sent more than 50,000 Cuban doctors fanning out across barrios in several South American nations to convince rural and urban poor of the virtues of socialism. Although the programs have been tainted by defections of Cubans to the United States and elsewhere, the effort has been well received by the poor.

Cuban doctors have not been dispatched to Panama, but Chávez sent 4,000 Panamanians to Cuba for free eye surgeries last year under his Operation Miracle program.

US Ambassador William Eaton said President Bush's recent trip to the region was evidence of the new emphasis Washington is placing on improving Latin American relations. Healthcare has become an important part of the US "relations focus," especially with Panama, he said.

"But it's not a competition" with the Cubans and Chávez, Eaton said in an interview last month. "We're just doing a better job of getting the word out to Panama. In the past we haven't been as aggressive in letting Panamanians know what we're doing," he said.

Antonio Holder, a top official in Panama's Health Ministry who was on hand to observe the US reservists at work last month in Norteno, said the dueling aid programs do resemble a contest of sorts. But he isn't complaining.

"If Panama has become a battleground, so be it -- the poor of our country are the winners," Holder said.

Nearby, homemaker Juana Abrego, one of hundreds of people who waited in line for hours to be seen by the reservists, listened to family physician Daniel Alley of Sheridan, Wyo., explain that the stomach ailments of her three children were caused by an intestinal parasite.

Army Reserve pharmacist James Massengale then handed her three boxes of free pills to treat the malady.

"I hope they come again," the mother said, before walking out of the school and toward the dense jungle foliage.