A chance encounter with Operación Milagro
CSC member Steve Wagstaff tells CubaSí what happened when he bumped into a Cuban Medical Brigade on a recent trip to Cochabamba, Bolivia
One morning I was passing through Cochabamba’s main square, Plaza 14 de Septiembre, when I spotted a gazebo adorned with a banner advertising Operación Milagro. Under the gazebo, six or seven youthful people were grouped around a table giving out information about the service.
I seized the opportunity to introduce myself and I was invited to visit the main office of the Cuban Medical Brigade in Cochabamba. When I did so, I was received very cordially by the brigade’s co-ordinator, Guillermo Betancourt Peña. We arranged a date for a group of four English people currently staying in Cochabamba to visit Operación Milagro’s facilities and to meet some of the staff.
At the start of Operación Milagro several years ago, patients were flown to Cuba from many different countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and North America, in order to undergo operations in eye clinics in Cuba.
Entire hotels in Cuba were turned over purely to accommodate the patients. Cuba bore the cost of the medical treatment and accommodation, while Venezuela bore the cost of transporting each patient and an accompanying carer from and back to their country of residence. However, eye clinics staffed and equipped by Cuba have now been set up in 15 different countries, including Bolivia, thus avoiding the transportation overhead.
Operación Milagro has several opthalmological clinics in Bolivia, including two located in poorer suburbs of the city of Cochabamba, at La Chimba and Valle Hermosa, and one in Cliza, a rural town in the department of Cochabamba. Mobile Cuban medical teams also visit remote rural locations, referring patients to the Operación Milagro clinics when appropriate.
Guillermo took us first to the clinic at La Chimba. It was teeming with young schoolchildren who were there for a “routine” eye check, under an arrangement with the state education service for schools to visit the clinic. The director of the clinic explained to us that the most common types of treatment offered are the removal of cataracts and the substitution of natural lenses with artificial ones. The former is achieved by laser treatment. The service also detects glaucoma, a symptom of diabetes, which is referred either to the general Cuban medical service or to a Bolivian or NGO health service.
$1 million aid per month
The clinics function for seven days per week. The Valle Hermosa clinic is staffed by 12 Cuban medics and two Bolivians, the secretary and the cleaner. Each patient undergoes a process which can involve up to 7 consultations. The last step of the process is to be issued with spectacles if needed. The entire service - registration, consultations, operations, tests, and dispensation of medicines and spectacles - is completely free of charge, the costs being borne by Cuba. The monthly value of Cuba’s aid to Bolivia is $1 million, and this has been sustained in spite of the massive damage caused by the recent hurricanes in Cuba, and in spite of the US blockade. All medications, dressings, spectacle lenses and spectacle frames are either produced in Cuba or imported by Cuba from third countries. The average cost of an eye operation within the service (borne by Cuba) is US$400, but the charge for an equivalent private operation in Bolivia would be US$1,200.
In the first nine months of 2008, Operación Milagro had perfomed 73,000 successful eye operations in Bolivia, 14,000 of them in Cochabamba. The total number of separate consultations in Bolivia in the same period was over 7 million. But Cuba has also provided 45 general hospitals in Bolivia.
Equipment and medical staff are Cuban, while Bolivia provides the buildings and administrative staff.
The Cuban doctors sometimes use interpreters in order to speak with patients in languages other than Spanish, and some of them have learnt key words and phrases (or more) in Quechua. The 12 medical staff in the Valle Hermosa clinic work to a rule that they operate on everyone on the day that they present themselves, so they sometimes work into the night.
The agreement between the two governments is an indefinite arrangement. Each Cuban medical brigade volunteer works a two-year stint in Bolivia, with a one-month break during the two years. Many of them have spouses and/or children at home in Cuba. There are also 5,300 Bolivians undergoing medical training in Cuba, alongside other students from a total of 71 different countries.
No-one turned away
Some of the Operación Milagro clinics in Bolivia are located fairly close to Bolivia’s frontiers with other South American countries: Copacabana is close to Peru, Villazón to Argentina, and Cobija and Santa Maria to Brazil. Many Peruvians, Brazilians, Paraguayans and Argentinians, having heard by one means or another about Operación Milagro, cross the border in order to attend a Cuban eye clinic in Bolivia. These people are given the same level of service, also supplied free of charge, as are the Bolivian patients. Indeed, said Guillermo, it is stated in the written co-operation agreement for Operación Milagro between the Cuban and Bolivian governments that this would be the case.
Last year, a Cuban eye doctor removed cataracts for a retired Bolivian soldier, who 40 years earlier had pulled the trigger to assassinate Che Guevara on orders from the Bolivian high command, acting in complicity with the CIA. Members of his family contacted the Cuban consulate to express their gratitude.