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Posted November 29, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Healthcare

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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.”


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  1. Follow up post #1 added on June 16, 2007 by josaine webster

    hi im from jamaica and i have cataract the doctors say i have it to the back of my eye, when you guys were here i went to one of your clinic and i was told i have to go to cuba but unfortunenately i was pregnant so i was told i could,nt go. now i need all the help i can get as my eye is cloudly and i dont see clearly i realy cant afford the surgery please help me !

  2. Follow up post #2 added on June 23, 2007 by john

    canadian resident looking for doctor to operate on “retinit” problem this is what i was told ,i am 35 and have already night blindness,would like as mush info as possible,$$$ shold not be a problem thx

  3. Follow up post #3 added on October 20, 2007 by S Ford

    My Brother in law has very poor vision, retina edema and we would like to see what can be done for him in Cuba. He is in Jamaica. We are happy to cover the cost for him, need help on how to make the necessary arrangemnts.
    S Ford

  4. Follow up post #4 added on October 20, 2007 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    I don’t have any more information for you. Try to find some Canadian companies or Canadian politicians or doctors that can give you leads.

    Cuba consulting services

  5. Follow up post #5 added on May 14, 2008 by Habeb mohammed saeed alnadhairy

    My cosin has very poor vision, glocoma and we would like to see what can be done for him in Cuba. we are in yemen. We are happy to cover the cost for him, need help on how to make the necessary arrangemnts to be admitted to your esteemed hospitals.
    Habeb mohammed saeed alnadhairy

    ill person : omar sharif mohammed

  6. Follow up post #6 added on September 12, 2008 by anicia

    hi i am from st.lucia and i have cataract,the doctor says i have it to the back of my left eye and that i need surgery which i can’t afford.i can’nt see clearly and i have pains in the left eye and it also burns can you help me please?

  7. Follow up post #7 added on December 09, 2008 by Dwayne Earle

    My mother is a jamaican teacher she 51 years old she needs to do a surgury to tie blood vessels at the back of her right eye and remove scar cell the doctor says a blood vessels are pulling on the retina distorting her vision. She has already lost sight in her left eye. The Jamaican Opthalmologist said the cost of the surgery is seven hundred thousand dollars $700,000 at present ant the price is subjected to the slippage of the jamaican to united states dollar I would just like to know if there is anything that can be done for my mother.  As we are currently unable to find that sum of money any time soon she will lose her job if something is not done fast.

  8. Follow up post #8 added on January 20, 2009 by Harilal

    my father in law has been blind for the past 17 years.  He is not diabetic.  I was wondering if you can help him to see again.  I am from Trinidad.

    Thanks for whatever assistance that you may give.

  9. Follow up post #9 added on February 19, 2009 by PANAGIOTIS KATSAMPAS

    hello i am from montreal my mom is 64 and has retinitis pigmatosa and glaucoma i am wondering if you can get me information on costs procedures and if there is a chance of helping her keep her eyesight please help me thank you

  10. Follow up post #10 added on April 20, 2009 by Leo Rivas

    Hi, I have been diagnosed with severe optic atrophy,cause by guillan barre’ syndrome. I was diagnosed with guillan barre’ syndrome last year 4-29-08, was in a respirator for 21/2 months,I went tru a lot of therapy and thank God I’m recuparating from “gbs” but I have very poor vision,I’ve been with so many different opthalmologist, and they’ve toll me that my optic nerve is damage and theres nothing else to do. Do you think there may be a surgery or any treatment that I could probably have to recover some of my vision back.  I’m only 36 years old and have kids that depend on me and I would like to be able to see them grow, please answer my question I’m so desperate for answers to my vision lost, is there any hope for me?

  11. Follow up post #11 added on April 27, 2009 by DENISE LIGHTBOURNE

    Hi, I am from the Bahamas my finance has a detached retina we need some information on doctors in Cuba that you can recommend to help with this situation.He has seen a doctor in the states but they are not sure if he will be able to see even after surgury. Can you please e-mail me some information that can assist me please.

  12. Follow up post #12 added on May 25, 2009 by Mrs Trudy Clarke

    For ten years i was on hemo dyalisis,i was then put forward for a transplant from my husband,things were starting to fail 2 months before the transplant,and one thing that did happen i lost the eyesight in my left eye,a week before the transplant my right eye failed,i was diagnosed with bilateral anterior ischaemic optic neuropethy,due to low blood pressure,low blood count,and a line infection.i was told my eyesight would never return,but my right eye has had a small ammount returned.
    Is there anything that can be done for my condition ?

  13. Follow up post #13 added on May 27, 2009 by Cheryl-Ann John

    Hi I am from Trinidad. I have a relative who only had the use of his left eye, he is 40yrs of age and recently had a retina detachment and damage lens, to the same eye. We are unable to find help in our country because of finances and he desperately needs help the doctors here are also afraid to do the operation, he has 8 kids to support, please help.

  14. Follow up post #14 added on June 10, 2009 by Kayla Clarke

    Hi, I am from Jamaica and my father was diagnois with diabetic retinaphathy. He has done a surgery for more than a year now and there is still no improvement in his sight. I would really like to get another doctor’s advice on his condition as he has been doing alot of follow up treatment whichis cost alot a money and no improvement. Please help someone even to direct me to a hospital where he can get better treatment. Thank you.

  15. Follow up post #15 added on June 26, 2009 by guadalupe L.

    help pleas
    i have a dark spot in the center on my right eye. I have seen many especialist and no one has been able to help me. this dark spot supposedly a brocken artery left a scarf and is not alowing me to see any thing clear.

  16. Follow up post #16 added on June 27, 2009 by Valerie

    I would like to get information on glaucoma repair surgery in Cuba. My husband has glaucoma and has lost 80% of the vision field in one of his eyes….....he is scheduled to have surgery in Florida but the cost is way too high for us.
    We live in Jamaica.

  17. Follow up post #17 added on September 07, 2009 by CAROL JAMES


  18. Follow up post #18 added on September 09, 2009 by Zulu Zodidi

    I am very interested in the eye sugery. I would love to know which Cuban Universitiy that train eye surgens and how do you apply. I am a South African thet would love to study in Cuba in three years to come.

  19. Follow up post #19 added on March 28, 2010 by Lonely with 2 total posts

    Hi I don’t know how 2 start i have an uncle whom I love with all my heart when i was 15 I was sent 2 him by my mother he became a very important person in my life he showed me what a family is about. few years later i found out he lost his vision I know he is diabetic and I know he went through 3 surgeries and they couldn’t do anything for him I think he had some kind of implant that got infected causing his vision lost it is really sad to see him like that it brakes my heart 2 see him like that every family member depended on him and now he depends on everyone. It would be nice if you could give me some info i really wish for him to see again. i want to give him a little of what he gave me once. pls I really need help I know there must b something that could b done ive lost many thing but not hope.

  20. Follow up post #20 added on June 25, 2011 by christine

    please help my sister. She is only 40 and lost sigt in one eye and barely glimpse from the other due to retina detatchment. Please for ur urgent assistant . God bless yu and thank you

  21. Follow up post #21 added on June 25, 2011 by christine

    I live in the (urks and Caicos Island I have a sister in Jamaica who cannot see from one eye but barely glimpse from the other due to retina detatchment cause by extacting a wisdom tooth. She is a diabetic and this happen two days after the extraction. I am begging and appealing for assistance she is only 40 and her children depends on her. God bless yu and thanks for your urgents response

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