Cuba expands free eye surgery to Asia and Africa

Campaign News | Wednesday, 13 September 2006

More than 375,000 already served

HAVANA - Cuba will bring its free eye surgery program to Africa and Asia in the coming months, expanding a campaign that has restored eyesight to hundreds of thousands of poor people in 28 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Most of the surgeries are done at the Cuban Ophthamology Institute in western Havana, a complex of buildings with 34 operating rooms where 62 doctors and dozens of residents can perform simultaneous operations, the directors said.

But "Operation Miracle" has also expanded to clinics in Venezuela and Bolivia and Cuban teams will soon expand to Ecuador and Mexico as well.

Various countries in both Africa and Asia have asked for Cuba's help, so in December, the first eye clinic using technology provided by the Cuban government will open in a yet-to-be-named country in Africa or Asia, with more to follow, director Marcelino Rios Torres said in Havana at the Non-aligned Movement's summit.

The Cuban government usually pays for air fare and other costs, as well as the surgeries. Since the program began in July 2004 with a group of poor Venezuelan patients, Cuban doctors have performed eye surgery, mostly for cataracts, on 375,619 patients, Rios Torres said.

As the program has grown, Cuba has acquired cutting-edge technology, mostly from the European Union and Asia because of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. In return, Cuba offers specialists whose dedication to serve the poor reflects the zeal of the Cuban revolution, the directors said.

"The mission is only directed at those patients who can't pay for private health care and don't have insurance," said Reinaldo Rios Caso, the institute's vice-director.

The patients, he said, are "poor people who have been blind for years because they're poor and would continue to be blind if not for this kind of help."

In a waiting room decorated with flags from the participating countries, Maria Guadalupe Ortiz Calderon, 73, waited for cataract surgery Tuesday. She's from Arteaga, a village in the western Mexican state Michoacan where she said the people often go without food. For at least two years, cataracts left her practically blind and she had no money to pay for the operation.

When people in her village heard about the Cuban government program, her husband urged her to try it - requiring her first trip outside Mexico. State officials helped by preparing the necessary documents and sending them to Havana.

It's not only other countries that benefit - before the 1959 revolution, only 117 eye doctors served Cuba, of which only 37 remained after President Fidel Castro took power, they said. Now, there are more than 800, a number soon to grow to more than 1,000, and 79,828 Cubans were among the patients.

"It's true this is 'Made in Cuba': doctors who operate until three or four in the morning, doctors who work with a tremendous commitment. This isn't 'Made in Japan' or 'Made in the U.S.A.'," Rios Caso said.

"It's a genuine product of the Cuban revolution."

When Ortiz arrived the previous week, Cuban nurses gave her eye drops to prepare for the surgery.

"And with those eyedrops, thanks to God, I can already see a little bit," she said, unable to hide her excitement.

"God will pardon them for everything and he will be very grateful to them," Ortiz said when asked what image of Cuba she'll take back to her village.

But when asked, she said she didn't know why anyone would have to pardon Cuba.

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