Havana's Operation Miracle helps eye patients see light

THE upmarket tourists and their luxury yachts that once swarmed the idyllic Marina Hemingway complex in Havana now find everything is booked out for months ahead. More than a dozen Havana hotels have been temporarily closed to tourists.

The reason is not a political crisis but a massive influx of a different kind of visitor to Cuba as Venezuela's petro-dollars fund "Operation Miracle" - a remarkable undertaking to take planeloads of the poor to Cuba for eye-surgery.

"I can see again," shouted a headline in the Jamaican Gleaner, a newspaper which carried an accompanying story about 23 poor patients from Jamaica who had just returned from successful eye operations in Cuba.

Jamaican Raymond Sterling, was elated just after his cataract was removed. "After going there [Cuba], I could see again like before," he said. "Everything was like heaven."

Since July 25, more than 3,000 people from ten Caribbean countries have had eye operations in Cuba funded by oil-rich Venezuela. Other patients from Central and South America bring the total to 100,000 free eye operations this year.

Elinor Sherlock, Jamaica's ambassador to Cuba, is impressed. "Over 500 Jamaicans have come here, some of them were blind, all of them poor. Now you see them staring with awe after the operation ...they can see again. Operation Miracle really is a miracle."

The brainchild of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro, this extraordinary humanitarian programme is offering free treatment to an estimated 4.5 million people suffering from eye-afflictions in Latin America and the Caribbean region over a ten-year period.

With its ramshackle third world economy, Cuba appears to be an unlikely rival to rich western nations in medical prowess and humanitarian aid.

But one of Castro's most respected achievements is the establishment of a comprehensive health system producing one doctor for every 170 people, compared to 188 in the US and 250 in the UK. Teams of Cuban doctors assess applicants for eye surgery before sending patients to Havana on special flights from ten Caribbean countries and more than 15 Latin American nations. On August 20, Cuba achieved what is almost certainly a world record - performing 1,648 eye operations at 20 hospitals in a single day.

Cuban eye surgeons are normally paid about 25 euros a month by the state, but five tourist hotels have been put at their disposal to ensure more comfort and facilities than they would get in their own homes.

All flights, accommodation and food are funded by the Venezuelan government as a result of various trade agreements. Cuba has been paying for vital shipments of 90,000 barrels of Venezuelan oil a day by helping President Chavez establish a free national health service in his country with the aid of 17,000 Cuban health professionals.

Under this agreement all Venezuelans - not only eye-patients - get free medical treatment in Havana's hospitals as part-payment for oil.

Cuba fields medical teams in 69 developing countries including 200 doctors and nurses in Pakistan's earthquake zone, and Castro offered to send the Henry Reeve Brigade of 1,500 doctors to aid Hurricane Katrina victims, an offer that was not taken up by the US government.

If more doctors and hospitals can be found outside Cuba, "Operation Miracle" will expand to 500,000 operations a year in 2006.

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