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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 20:45 GMT
Panama welcomes Cuba eye surgery
Fidel Castro at a doctors' graduation ceremony
Cuba is proud of its health system and highly-trained doctors
Panama President Martin Torrijos says he wants to thank Cuban President Fidel Castro for giving many poor Panamanians their sight back, on a visit to Havana.

Dozens of Panamanians are arriving in Cuba for free eye operations, under a scheme called Operation Miracle.

Cuba already offers thousands of poor Latin Americans free medical treatment.

Cuba's agreement to treat thousands of Panamanians follows a thawing in relations between the two countries, after a diplomatic row last year.

"After one year of not having relations, now we have normalise them, and I hope that we will work towards a new type of solidarity and co-operation with the Cuban government," Mr Torrijos said.

Relations were ruptured when his predecessor, Mireya Moscoso, pardoned four Cuban exiles accused of planning to assassinate President Castro.

Opportunity for the poor

Under Operation Miracle, Cuba will provide surgery for up to 12,000 patients from Panama each year.

The Panamanian president arrived in Havana with 78 patients.

Mr Torrijos said it was his obligation to visit Cuba "as a sign of my thanks for the opportunity being given to many humble Panamanians to recover their sight".

Operation Miracle is part of Cuba's wider plan to offer people in the region access to its medical facilities and highly-trained doctors.

This year tens of thousands of Venezuelans have received free eye treatment in Cuba, and Cuba sends up to one-fifth of all of its doctors to Venezuela.

In return, Venezuela sends 90,000 barrels of crude oil per day at preferential rates.

Mr Torrijos acknowledged that the Panama scheme was made possible by the restoration of diplomatic ties, following talks in August in Havana with the Cuban leader.

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