By Gary Marx | Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent
For the first time in nearly a generation, Cuba’s moribund economy is showing signs of life because of a new program financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to provide residents across Latin America and the Caribbean free eye surgery.
Called Mision Milagro, or Miracle Mission, the campaign has provided more than 122,000 cataract and other eye operations this year to patients from Venezuela to Jamaica to Bolivia.
The patients are flown to the island on Cuban airliners and housed in hotels, schools and waterfront resorts for their operations, a godsend to people who otherwise could not afford eye surgery.
“Guatemala is a poor country, and these operations are very expensive,” said Consuelo Ruano, a 44-year-old Guatemalan recuperating from surgery on her left eye. “Thank God, and thank you, Fidel Castro.”
But the effort bankrolled by Chavez also represents one of the most significant new economic enterprises in Cuba since the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union, then Cuba’s main benefactor.
It is part of a major shift in the Cuban economy away from traditional foreign investment and mainstream tourism to a web of favorable agreements with Venezuela, an oil-rich nation that now is Cuba’s closest ally.
Though neither country has released official numbers, economists and diplomats believe Cuba could be earning $1 billion a year from eye operations and other medical treatment provided to foreigners under Venezuelan-financed programs such as Mision Milagro.
Cancels oil expense
The revenue is used to cover the cost of receiving 98,000 barrels of discounted Venezuelan oil daily, essentially canceling what traditionally has been Cuba’s largest import bill and its greatest drain on hard currency resources.
“This is an excellent business for Cuba,” said Pedro Monreal, an economist at the University of Havana. “This is like striking gold.”
In addition to providing discounted oil and financing Cuba’s burgeoning health tourism industry, Venezuela has pledged to invest more than $2 billion in Cuba while providing trade credits and other assistance.
The Cuban government also is earning millions of dollars annually in fees from contracting the services of more than 20,000 Cuban physicians, sports trainers and other professionals in Venezuela, experts say.
While Monreal argues that the Venezuelan assistance gives Cuba its first opportunity in years to develop economically, others say hitching Cuba’s economic wagon to Venezuela risks repeating the mistake Castro made by aligning himself with the Soviet bloc after he took power in 1959.
The Cuban economy went into a free fall after the Soviet Union’s collapse ended several billion dollars in annual subsidies.
“I thought they learned never to put their eggs in one basket, and now they are doing it again,” said one diplomat in Havana. “They are relying completely on Chavez.”
Little gain for ordinary Cubans
Even with the Venezuelan assistance and an economy that Cuban authorities say is growing 9 percent this year, few Cubans say their lives have improved. Blackouts, shortages of consumer goods and other problems persist.
Some Cubans express resentment at the resources being poured into Mision Milagro, complaining that foreigners get better medical treatment than they do. Other Cubans seethe as they watch foreign patients driven to and from hospitals in new Chinese luxury buses while they wait for hours for scarce public transportation.
“I was standing in the blazing sun, and three of these Chinese buses with patients passed with an ambulance behind it,” said one Havana resident. “I thought these buses were for us.”
Despite the complaints, Castro announced that Cuba is equipping and staffing hospitals throughout the island to sharply increase the number of eye operations.
“In the first trimester of next year, in three months, we will have the capacity to operate on 1.5 million people each year,” he told a national television audience last month.
The ties between Cuba and Venezuela have grown ever stronger in recent years, the result of Chavez and Castro’s mutual antipathy toward United States policy.
But the two leaders also are drawn to each other by need. Venezuela provides vital cash and oil to Cuba while Cuban doctors and other professionals provide services to impoverished Venezuelans, boosting Chavez’s popularity at home.
At La Pradera, a former Havana-area hotel turned into medical rehabilitative center, Venezuelans suffering from strokes, back injuries and other aliments receive free medical treatment under a bilateral agreement signed by Chavez and Castro in 2000.
More than 113,000 Venezuelans have received eye operations in Cuba this year under Mision Milagro, which was expanded several months ago to include patients from other Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Michael Shifter, a vice president at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy group, said Chavez is using the program to bolster his image across the region by demonstrating the benefits of his self-described revolution.
“Chavez’s mission is to be a regional leader, and this is an integral part of a broader strategy,” he said.
But Mision Milagro also fits neatly into Castro’s agenda, where health care and internationalist endeavors are two pillars of the revolution.
`There is no politics’
“It is an excellent program,” said Claudette Yearde, a Jamaican Health Ministry official assigned to help coordinate the effort in her homeland. “There is a great need. From where I sit there is no politics.”
Yearde said 545 Jamaicans have been treated under Mision Milagro, with about 100 new arrivals each week. There are 1,500 Jamaicans waiting to travel to Cuba to have eye surgery.
Once in Cuba, many of the Jamaicans and patients from other nations are housed in condominium buildings in Marina Hemingway, a gated waterfront community with swaying palm trees and docks lined with yachts and sport-fishing boats.
Other patients are housed in Tarara, an aging beachfront resort several miles east of Havana that is being spruced up and expanded with Venezuelan cash.
The eye operations are performed at more than a dozen facilities, including Havana’s Ramon Pando Ferrer Eye Hospital. There, on a recent day, several dozen patients sat in rows of green lounge chairs as a nurse called them one by one to begin treatment.
“I am not nervous at all,” said Carlos Sanchez, a 51-year-old Venezuelan laborer who was among the patients awaiting surgery. “I can see a little, but I really want to see better. It will help me with my work.”
But the logistics of managing such a large operation have led to glitches as some patients complain of being stranded for weeks in Cuba awaiting a flight home.
At least one nurse involved in the eye operations said Cuban physicians are sacrificing quality for quantity as they hurry to complete as many operations as possible.
The nurse said the number of eye operations at her hospital has soared from about 15 to more than 120 daily, and many patients fail to receive important preoperative tests, she said. The surgeries are performed round-the-clock.
“Nobody is in agreement with this, but they say that you have to do it without discussion,” the nurse said. “The patients are being mistreated.”
Cuban officials did not respond to interview requests, but one ophthalmologist said that despite exhaustion and feelings of being pressured, great care is taken with each patient.
“We are in a rush. That’s true,” the doctor said. “But you never sacrifice quality. There are blind people who would never see again and now they can see.”