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.