VENEZUELA EXPANDS HEALTHCARE INITIATIVES

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Venezuela will spend US$2.5bn in the latest stage of its Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighbourhood) healthcare plan. The money will be used predominately to purchase top-quality medical equipment from abroad, as part of plan to refurbish the hospital system.

Construction has also begun on 600 new diagnostic centres throughout the country, with emergency departments, operating rooms and ambulance services. Meanwhile, with a shortage of around 20,000 physicians, medical education has been declared a priority. Under a new scheme, Venezuela, with help from Cuban educators, will train some 50,000 doctors in the next 10 years.

Healthcare has been high on the agenda for Venezuela in the past few years. In 2003, an oil-for-expertise agreement was signed with Cuba. In exchange for cheap prices for crude oil, Cuba sent 13,000 doctors to work in primary healthcare centres in the country. As well as this, Venezuela has begun importing and using over 100 medicines from Cuba.

However, market observers claim that Venezuela is doing little to attract foreign investment into the country's health sector, essential to its future development, with local production and expertise remaining limited. Venezuela's reliance on cheap imported generics has given little incentive to foreign drugmakers to launch high-priced branded drugs in the country, while its patent protection laws remain overwhelmingly negative.

There are also concerns that the "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas," a trade agreement drawn up by Cuba and Venezuela, in October 2004, could threaten US free trade agreements in the region.