Breaking the Blockade Against Cuba: Interview with Claudia Camba

“Cuba is the model of what can be achieved. Imagine how much more it could do without the economical and media blockade!”. These are the words of Claudia Camba, president of the UMMEP Foundation (“Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible”, “A better world is possible”) and coordinator of the Cuban missions in Argentina. In this exclusive Investig’Action interview, she tells us about Cuban solidarity in Argentina and Latin America, and specially about Operación Milagro (“Operation Miracle”) and the Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara ophthalmologic centre in Córdoba.

Can you tell us a bit of the history of Operación Milagro (“Operation Miracle”)?

Operación Milagro was borne out of another great Cuban internationalist mission, which was the literacy program “Yo Sí Puedo” (“Yes I can”), and more concretely in Venezuela, where this literacy program was called “Misión Robinson”. The Venezuelans, through this program, had the goal of teaching 1 million people how to read and write in six months. Throughout this time they had some major successes as well as big difficulties, and one of them was the participants’ vision. Almost all the illiterate taking part in this program were adults with vision problems.

To overcome this Cuba sent 1500 optometrists, to test the peoples’ vision and give them glasses. But even with glasses some people could not see, and after an examination it turned out that they had cataracts. That is how “Misión Milagro”, which initially was just between Venezuela and Cuba, was born. With this mission over 300.000 Venezuelans travelled to Cuba to have surgery, not only for cataracts but also for other eye problems.

And this mission is later extended to Argentina?

Later on, in 2005, Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro begin to wonder: why not extend this mission to the whole of Latin America? Our organisation, UMMEP (“Un Mundo Mejor Es Posible”, “A better world is possible”), had been conducting the “Yo Sí Puedo” literacy program in Argentina, and we were approached by Cuba about the possibility of articulating ourselves with “Operación Milagro”. For us it was an honour to accept this cooperation.

In the beginning the mission involved sending Argentinian patients to be operated in Cuba. The first airplane with Argentinian patients left at the time of the “Summit of the Peoples”, in November 2005. This summit was created to counter the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata. Bush was coming to set up the ALCA free trade agreement and many Latin American presidents, with this newfound unity that had been forming, were prepared to strike a blow against Bush and the empire. One part of it was burying ALCA, and another was creating ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas), from the initiative of Venezuela and Cuba, in Argentina. That is why it was so symbolic that on that very day the first Argentinian patients left for Cuba.

And what about the “Che Guevara” hospital in Córdoba, when does it appear?

This initial version of Operación Milagro lasted around 6 months. It was ridden with difficulties, because as you can imagine, we were dealing with very humble people that did not have passports, had never left the country, some did not even know the neighbouring town. Argentina is a very big country, and to fly out of Buenos Aires you sometimes need to travel 2000 km to reach the airport. So the matter of passports and travels was very difficult.

Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro (Photo: Granma)

But in January 2006 Evo Morales triumphed in Bolivia, and declared that Bolivia was to join the ALBA agreements. Then Cuba replied that, under these agreements, hospitals would be built in Bolivia. We sent a letter to Fidel Castro proposing that, if this went ahead, then Argentinian patients could be operated in Bolivia. Being a neighbouring country, passports were not needed and a national ID document was enough. And that is how this began, this epic journey which involved Fidel, Evo and Chávez, through which 13 hospitals were built, 2 of them dedicated to patients from Argentina. Over 30.000 people from Argentina were operated in Bolivia.

A few years later, the following idea appeared, again from Cuba: given all our experience, with thousands of surgeries and plenty of doctors who did the pre- and post-surgical work in Argentina, why not gather these doctors and set up our own hospital in Argentina? This would have Cuba’s support, but not a Cuban medical team, because in Argentina the Cuban doctors’ degrees are not recognised. (This is absurd, since we are talking about the country with the highest development in terms of healthcare in Latin America and the Caribbean!).

With this idea in mind, we searched for a location, Cuba donated all the equipment and we inaugurated the Ernesto “Che” Guevara hospital on October 8, 2009, at first in a temporary location that was loaned to us. We started there and operated more than 7000 patients in that hospital. Two years ago we had the good fortune of being able to move to our own building, which has the advantage that it can be extended in the future, to make room for a university, lodging for patients. The campaign we are launching has to do with that.

You have mentioned the relation between Operación Milagro and the literacy program “Yo Sí Puedo“. But how is it connected to another major component of Cuban internationalism, which is the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM)?

The establishment of the mission in Argentina is deeply connected to ELAM and to the first Argentinian graduates from the school. Not in the stage where patients were being flown to Cuba but in the Bolivian stage. In this stage, when Fidel proposed setting up hospitals, he also urged that the first 50 Argentine graduates from ELAM be called to work in this mission. This was a very important task, because they did not have their medical degrees recognised in Argentina. Fidel was very worried, especially about their morale, since they had been trained to save lives and were barred from doing it. They were not able to practice medicine in Argentina, but they could do it in Bolivia. This would help their self-esteem since their situation was incredibly unfair.

Many of these doctors had been in Venezuela and founded, after a suggestion from Chávez, the so-called “batallón 51”. Seven of them joined us. Other doctors joined us later, and there was also the possibility of giving them scholarships to get specialty training in Cuba. This is the case of our current director, Lucía Coronel, who studied epidemiology. Besides her there are three general practitioners from the ELAM, an anaesthesiologist and an ophthalmologist. These are the ELAM graduates currently working with us in Operación Milagro. The other doctors are graduates from the universities in Córdoba. It is also interesting to witness how both groups come together, exchange ideas, make each other better, it is wonderful.

Operación Milagro has allowed 50.000 Argentinians to regain their vision free of charge (Photo: Operación Milagro)

Is there resistance from the Argentinian medical corporations to these Cuban-trained doctors? After all, they are taking away a potentially lucrative business!

That is true. The pressure against us, if we look at it, we do not feel it will come from the government. Because we are solving a problem for the government, it is not in their interest to attack us. Those who seem to be getting emboldened, with the capitalists and the right-wing back in power, are the medical corporations. This is what is happening in Argentina. Now, what might happen? Throughout the years, they have pressured doctors not to join us. They never managed to do that with the Cuban-trained ones, of course. They tried to denigrate them, but the people love them, they are where they are supposed to be.

In our case, if the medical establishment attacks us I think it would backfire. Because imagine a hospital where every day people arrive from different parts of Argentina, especially from around Córdoba. If, suppose, they attacked us and we had to close (which will not happen because it is not possible), they will have their waiting rooms full of poor people. What we have been figuring out through the years is that the large waiting lists in the hospitals have worked to increase the prices of surgeries in the private sector, prices that may reach 20.000 or even 30.000 pesos (between 1000 and 1500€). The very doctors that are in the public hospitals many times also run private practices. So it might be in their interest to have large waiting lists, it is a matter of supply and demand using blind people to regulate the market. But at the same time these corporations have no intention of operating on anyone for free.

It is important to stress that this hospital is a hospital of the people. In other words, the people will defend it. But of course, the corporations have their own interests, which is why we are struggling for socialism.

Going back to a more concrete topic, how does the hospital run? In terms of funding, medicines, etc…

The hospital runs thanks to the solidarity of Cuba. Essentially, up until now, the Cuban ministry of health donates every year the necessary medicines and supplies for the hospital to run, through the institution that manages medical services abroad. This is a lot of money. And when we were having financial troubles Cuba also helped us so we could keep going. Beyond that, we also get funds from donations, some people do it through the internet, others leave it in a box we have in the hospital. Other countries have also offered their solidarity. For example, the Juntas Generales de Guipúzcoa, from the Basque Country, donated money for 3 years to buy a laser equipment, as well as medicines and supplies. Some laboratories also donate medicines and supplies and that is how we keep going. Trade unions and social movements also offer their contributions.

Claudia Camba participated in the XIV Spain Solidarity Meeting with Cuba, which took place in Bilbao from 9-11 June 2017 (Photo: Cubainformación)

People sometimes do not understand, especially western people, that a country like Cuba that has its fair share of difficulties, maintains these solidarity programs…

The key is to understand the difference between solidarity and charity. Solidarity means sharing what we have, and charity is giving away whatever is left. Not only that, solidarity will never bind anyone, or be a mechanism to colonise, or demand something in return, rather it will complement the existing knowledge. This is why Cuba has always sought to have sustainable hospitals and why we are also planning to set up a medical school, so that solidarity can keep multiplying beyond Cuba. In practice the hospital is Argentinian, there is only a Cuban doctor that works as a consultant, and then there are 15 Argentinian doctors. In other words, this goal of sustainability has been achieved.

Other than that there is the difference between two systems. It is hard to grasp it if we are looking from a capitalist perspective. This is like the tourist that goes to Cuba and evaluates everything with a capitalist mindset. Now, whoever understands that socialism is meant to place people front and centre, and not capital, will understand this. And on the other hand, if we want to talk about poverty, there are plenty of poor people in Argentina, as well as problems of children living in the streets, eating from rubbish bins, as well as child prostitution. In Cuba you will not find a child suffering from malnutrition, or sleeping in the street. Unicef recognised Cuba as the only Latin American country without childhood malnutrition. It is the country with the largest life expectancy and the lowest child mortality rate in Latin America and the Caribbean. Does every Cuban have a car? Surely not, but that is also not the case in Argentina. This is what I mean, poverty can mean different things from a capitalist or a socialist perspective.

Now turning to the “Súmate” campaign (“Join Us”), what are its goals?

In our current hospital building we have the possibility of constructing two more floors on top. The idea is to start by building an area to lodge patients that come from the countryside. People come and sometimes have no place to stay, they have surgery and end up sleeping in the bus terminal. This is unthinkable, it is illogical, a health hazard for the person. So we are planning to build this not only for the people in the countryside nearby, but also to coordinate with other provinces further away, so that people can come in an organised fashion, have surgery, stay here, then return to their houses and have a doctor do a post-surgery check. This is the idea to begin with.

The second step is to create an auditorium for lectures, so that we can bring specialists from around the world to share their experiences with Argentinian doctors about everything that has to do with public healthcare. We want to strengthen public health system. And the accommodation will also work for them, because in the cities there is access to this kind of training, but not so much in the countryside. That means that they can never operate on patients because they have no way of receiving training, and we think that is something that we can help with.

The “Súmate” campaign in front of the Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara ophthalmologic centre in Córdoba (Photo: Operación Milagro)

As far as I understand, the work involves more than just receiving patients. There is also outreach work to find patients?

Indeed. The program is built on a premise from the beginning, which is called “active search” (“pesquisa activa”). Fidel for example talked about this when he was in Córdoba and gave a speech at the university. The point is that we do not simply wait for people to find us. Although we do have open consultations, on weekends the doctors go out, thanks to a network that social organisations set up in their neighbourhoods, and perform this active search. So the doctor goes there because there is something going on with peoples’ vision, and those that have a problem that we are able to deal with are forwarded to the hospital. This way we are breaking some of the biggest barriers in ophthalmology, which are geographical, informational or communicational. There are people who believe their problems have no solution! Especially older people. But blindness due to cataracts is reversible, so we need to go out and find them. This is what our doctors do.

One last question: the blockade against Cuba also manifests itself through the media. This makes it so that nothing is said about Cuban internationalism and solidarity. Why do you think this is so? Why is it so dangerous for people to find out what Cuba is doing?

Because it would reveal the humanism of socialism. Because it would reveal what a country that has been under a blockade for more than 50 years has been able to achieve. This is similar to the demonisation of Venezuela, omitting all that Venezuela has been doing around the world. For example the PetroCaribe program in the Caribbean, or its response after the earthquake in Haiti. Venezuela also helped us in a lot of programs, with Cuba often providing the human resources and Venezuela the financial ones. All this solidarity is never heard of.

Even more so concerning Cuba, because Cuba is the model of what can be achieved. Imagine how much more it could do without the economical and media blockade! It is our task to break the blockade. And we, Argentinians involved in solidarity with Cuba, feel that these missions are a way to breach the blockade bit by bit. Every time we get to a poor neighbourhood the people are made aware of Cuba, they are introduced to this very small island called Cuba that is big when it comes to solidarity. And that is how they get to know for the first time what Cuba is all about.

More information is available at the Operación Milagro and Súmate websites. Donations, in Argentinian pesos (1€ ~ 20 Argentinian pesos) can be done here.

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