Operación Milagro (Operation Miracle), a Cuban initiative founded in 2004 to offer free eye care to poor and geographically inaccessible communities around the world, celebrated its tenth year this month, reports Cubasí. People in 31 countries throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa have received ophthalmological care from Cuban doctors and health care professionals. By treating cataracts, as well as glaucoma, strabismus, and retina problems, Operación Milagro has “improved or restored” vision to over 3.4 million people since it began ten years ago.
I expect we will soon see comments from those representing the Cuban-American minority in Florida who will claim that such projects are only done for their value as propaganda. If I was a patient from another country who had my eyesight improved or restored, I wouldn’t care if the Cuban government somehow benefitted from such propaganda.
Two years ago, I was talking with a Cuban physician about the contributions of Cuban health care teams in Haiti after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake of 2010. I was surprised at his bitter reaction to the disaster operations. He said that Cuban health teams were in Haiti before the quake, and remained there afterwards. (They are still there to this day.) He was very resentful. He called the situation in Haiti “completely hopeless.” He said that he served there for over a year, taking care of poor, malnourished, uneducated children, who had “no chance to have a normal life.” He said that typically there would be 4-5 or more such children per family. He said that Haiti’s wealthy residents treat poor children like animals, using them as slaves and even sexual toys. He said that without encouraging and establishing widespread birth control for the poor, “just about everything else is a waste of time and resources. While poor Haitians keep having babies for us Cubans to care for, I wouldn’t see my one child back in Havana for over a year.” He used his words carefully, indicating that Cuban medical workers were expected to faithfully work on a mission in a “completely hopeless” country, while the Cuban government gets praise from other countries.
He went on to tell me about how he also disliked many of the Americans who showed up for photo opportunities—the movie stars, politicians like Bill Clinton, and others who wanted to show the world “how much they care. A few years later, they’re gone, along with billions of dollars in donations that just disappeared. Where is that money now?,” he said. Three years later, a million Haitians were still living under tarps, as hurricanes blasted the capital of Port-au-Prince.
His comments helped me view foreign medical assistance and donations from a different perspective. Cuba is unique, in that very basic health care is available to everybody, not just the upper classes as in Haiti and other countries. The difference is that supplies are often not available. Many Cubans blame the embargo; others blame the Cuban system itself. In my opinion, it’s probably a combination of factors. I’ve been on several expeditions to Cuba when we’ve brought donated medical supplies. Years ago, large containers were shipped from the U.S. to Mexico, and onward to Cuba. In the last few years, however, everything we brought to donate was transported by aircraft—a very expensive way to take medical donations. It is ironic that the U.S. Department of Treasury requires that trips to Cuba require a specific focus, such as medical care. Unfortunately, the embargo makes it virtually impossible to ship large containers. The only viable way to make medical donations is to bring them along on our flights. Even so, all donations of medical and school supplies seem to be especially appreciated by locals, especially when donated by us Americans. (They understand that it is much more difficult for us than for travelers from other countries.) I encourage travelers in my groups to bring whatever they can. On past trips, many have paid extra just to get their supplies to Miami, and onward to Cuba.
To read the full article about Operation Miracle, please visit: Cubasí.
If you are traveling on a tight budget, and/or want a more personalized experience, I highly recommend staying at least some of the time in a casa particular. Apparently this term only applies to facilities in Cuba, and a casa is roughly equivalent to a Bed-and-Breakfast Inn. The owner’s family usually lives in another part of the house, which can be quite large. Some are restored mansions from the 1800’s.
There are several good websites you can use to research places to stay. Three that I especially recommend are: www.CasaParticular.Info, www.CasaParticularCuba.org, and www.Connect2Cuba.com. A particular casa particular may be found on several sites. You will find photos, maps, booking applications, suggestions, links, ratings, and other information. You should be able to find a clean, safe room for two for about $25 USD or more per night. Be sure to convert various prices to the same currency to compare rates. Currently $1 USD = $0.90 Canadian dollars, $0.87 CUC’s Cuban Convertible Pesos), and € 0.73 (Euros).
I haven’t yet located any casas where you can reserve rooms on an American credit card via a third country, but I suspect it’s possible. Most simply ask you to just bring cash. Keep in mind that if you reserve a room during a busy season without using a credit card, don’t be surprised if it is not available when you arrive. However, the owner will be able to locate a similar room nearby. Another strategy is to book your first 2 nights in a hotel through a Canadian travel agency such as Nash Travel www.NashTravel.com (where you can also book and pay for your flights from Cancun or Mexico City to Havana and back). Then you can spend some time during your first few days checking out casas during the day. Be sure to clarify if the indicated rate is per room (it usually is) or per person, if breakfast is included (it usually is), and the additional cost for a home-cooked dinner. I suggest only booking 2 nights at a time; then extend day-to-day if you are happy with the arrangements. If you are traveling to other areas of Cuba, your host will be able to suggest casas you could stay at. (I would still go online and check their ratings.)
I think it is really important for first-time visitors to Havana to spend their first few nights in the geographic area known as Old Havana (whether you are staying in a casa or a hotel). There is much to see and do in this concentrated area, which is roughly the area from the narrow harbor entrance and the passenger ship terminals west along Brasil Street to the Capitolio (Capitol Building); north along Prado (Avenue) to the Malecon Seawall, then east and southeast along the Malecon back to the ship terminals. It’s fun to wander around this area at night (particularly along Obispo Street), listening to a variety of high-quality music.
I usually suggest Cuba visitors travel in a group tour on their first trip. There is so much to see and experience. They will likely want to return to Cuba anyway. But if you have limited funds and speak basic Spanish, staying in casas particulares may just be right for you.
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what may happen to the Cuba Travel Industry after the U.S. Presidential Election tomorrow. The possibilities range from “nothing” to “many changes” (eventually). The opinions of experts I’ve read are all over the place. It’s impossible to predict accurately, and it is a lot more complicated than you may think.
It is possible that on Wednesday morning we may not even know who our next president will be. It looks like the popular vote will be close, like in the year 2000. Some key states may not have their totals completed. Lawyers for both sides are ready to challenge any decision that doesn’t favor the outcome they want. It’s going to be very interesting.
Probably the most misunderstood aspect of the Cuba travel situation is that the president doesn’t have as much control as many people believe. Up until the late 1990’s, the president had the ability to simply eliminate travel and trade restrictions with an executive order. But President Clinton, while wheeling and dealing on other matters, transferred much of the power involving these issues to the congress. Currently the Senate leans democratic; the House has a majority of Republicans. That brings up another matter: although there is a tendency for democrats to favor unrestricted travel to Cuba, the situation is not as clearly defined as with other issues. Some of the most open-minded advocates of unrestricted travel and trade are Republicans, such as conservative Jeff Flake of Arizona. Some of the most hard-core opponents are Democrats, such as liberal Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, Chair of the Democratic National Committee.
Yet another factor contributing to the overall confusion is that, in the overall scheme of things, Cuba just isn’t very important to most Americans, who know little about the country. There are too many hot spots in the world that draw the attention of reporters and the media—Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, the country currently in the middle of a revolution, the nation currently hosting the disaster of the month, etc. Right now the effects of Hurricane Sandy in northeast U.S. are front and center in the headlines.
If President Obama is re-elected, I believe he won’t move to change things as quickly as most people expect. There would be no particular political advantage to fighting with congress on this issue. He has already made deals with conservatives that have resulted in less pressure for normalization of relations. The easy way out is to just wait until Fidel passes, which could be this year. The problem is that Fidel has been reported to be near death in each of at least the last 8 years. He keeps fooling the “experts.” You just can’t trust those communists!
If Governor Romney wins, I believe he is going to have an extremely sharp learning curve, and too many overwhelming problems to deal with immediately. Unless there is a major change in Cuba (such as massive demonstrations or the death of Fidel), there really is no political reason for him to change anything. He can just continue the current “policy” of allowing a small minority of Cuban exile extremists to dictate U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean.
Either candidate is going to inherit an incredible mess of interconnected domestic, foreign, and economic issues, many of which were inherited from the previous administration. No matter who wins, we are all in for quite a ride. An old Chinese blessing goes something like this: “May you live during interesting times.” I’m sure we will.
Bottom line—I don’t think there will be many changes at all during the next administration, unless Fidel passes. As long as his brother Raul Castro remains president, relations between Cuba and the U.S. probably won’t change significantly either, although there are always a few small token steps forward and backward each year. On the other hand, there is always the potential for major, life-changing events. They could happen tomorrow. This is why this country of warm and friendly people who generally love Americans continue to live in the Caribbean Twilight Zone. Nobody there can really plan for the future.
Writing to your congressman is a complete waste of time. As individual Americans, the only thing you really can do is to travel to Cuba with a group or by yourselves. Most of the larger travel companies have now had their licenses renewed. So go to Cuba, make friends, and perhaps set up a personal micro-investment relationship with somebody in your field. Officially, the U.S. Government is encouraging people-to-people travel to Cuba. Officially, the Cuban Government welcomes American travelers with open arms. So why not take advantage of these two official positions? Travel to Cuba, learn as much as you can, keep an open mind, and be respectful of those who disagree with you. I’m sure you’ll be fascinated, and you’ll have a lot of fun.
Several months ago, bureaucratic red tape and/or political harassment caused delays in the renewal of licenses for most travel companies taking Americans to Cuba. Now it looks like that logjam has been broken. Companies such as Insight Cuba and National Geographic Expeditions recently received license renewals. They have returned to their earlier frantic pace of signing up U.S. citizens to visit Cuba—the Twilight Zone of the Caribbean, and of American foreign policy.
These companies feature programs that require mandatory participation in a “full schedule of educational exchange activities.” According to Laura Bly, writing in USA Today, regulations have been tightened, and the U.S. Treasury Department “now requires U.S. companies to provide a sample itinerary, assign a representative to each tour, and explain how the exchanges would ‘enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.’”
As with most U.S. policies involving Cuba, these new requirements will likely be counterproductive to U.S. interests. The additional representative with each tour will cost the travel company more money. These costs will be passed on to individual travelers, who have shown they are willing to pay almost any amount to legally travel to Cuba. (Many tours are booked up through next summer.) The additional representative will need an extra hotel room in Cuba, along with other various expenses, and these costs will be directly or indirectly paid to the Cuban government.
It is truly ironic, humorous, and pathetic, that U.S. policies supposedly put in place to bring down the Castro regime, consistently prop it up instead. OFAC—the Office of Foreign Assets Control, a division of the Treasury Department—has the thankless job of interpreting and enforcing over 80 pages of regulations involving Cuba travel—regulations that continue to evolve and change. Just like the IRS (which likewise has to interpret and enforce irrational tax laws), OFAC is doing its best to perform its duties while fending off incredible pressures from clueless congressmen who want laws interpreted in a particular way. Many seem to have no knowledge of Cuba or U.S. foreign policy. They just know that if they vote as requested by certain Cuban-American congressmen or senators, in return they will get support for their local bridge to nowhere, or other similar pork-barrel project.
But at least our congress is consistent—consistently disgusting, and consistently dysfunctional, no matter what the issue.