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Castro Challenges Bush for Area Hearts and Minds

Marc Frank

HAVANA -- Cuban President Fidel Castro on Sunday scoffed at Bush administration efforts to ease social problems in Latin America, boasting his poor country could run circles around the United States in health and education aid.

"Bush will discover that the empire's political and economic system can't compete in the area of vital services such as education and health with Cuba, assaulted and blockaded for almost 50 years," Castro wrote in an editorial published by the official newspaper Rebel Youth.

"Everyone knows the U.S. specialty in the area of education is to steal brains," Castro charged, citing an International Labor Organization report that 47 percent of foreign-born students that complete a Ph.D. in the United States stay on there.

A Cuban literacy program is being used by millions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, Castro said.

The 80-year-old Cuban leader has taken to writing opinion pieces as he recovers from a series of intestinal surgeries over the last year.

Castro's brother and defense minister, Raul Castro, 76, has been temporarily running the government.

The Bush administration hosted 150 Latin American and 90 U.S. organizations this week to discuss U.S. social work in Latin America and promote corporate efforts in the region.

The White House Conference on the Americas was attended by Bush, his wife, Laura, and five Cabinet members as part of an effort to counter Venezuela's and Cuba's growing use of education and health programs to win hearts and minds in South America.

Communist Castro and socialist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are challenging U.S. influence with their own integration plan that combines Venezuela's oil wealth and Cuba's human capital to offer preferential oil deals and massive social programs to other countries.

Castro on Sunday ridiculed the current four-month tour of the region by the U.S. hospital ship Comfort.

"You can't carry out medical programs by episodes," he said, comparing the ship's coming weeklong stop in Haiti with the hundreds of Cuban doctors working for nearly a decade there alongside Haitians trained in Cuba.

Bush highlighted a Panama-based center that has upgraded the skills of 100 Central American doctors and plans to establish a nursing school, among other projects, during his opening speech at the Conference of the Americas.

Castro countered on Sunday with the Cuban-run eye clinics in the region that have operated on 700,000 of the region's poor.

"Our country has dozens of thousands of Latin American and Caribbean students studying medicine in an absolutely free program," Castro said.

"We are cooperating with Venezuela to train more than 20,000 youth there as doctors," he added.

© Reuters 2007

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