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Operation Miracle: Cuban Health Care Gives Sight to the Near Blind for Free

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While the US struggles with its health care system, already the costliest in the world both overall and per capita, Cuba is struggling with a different problem, how to open more clinics in more countries to give more people free ophthalmological care so they can see better than before. And the most remarkable twist of all is, they are doing it for free. It doesn't cost the patient one thin dime to have the surgery done, regardless if the person is a citizen or not.

With President Obama's health care plan supposed to cost an additional $1 trillion, there's no guarantee that it will even ever see the light of day. The US health care system is bloated beyond compare, is slipping precariously from its horrible 37th ranking in 2000, and is doomed to cost even more in the near future if any existing plan is passed. Obviously the words "Free surgery," are nowhere to be found in these plans.

In the US, the first thing one does when an eye problem occurs is to see whether one's medical insurance covers the problem in question. Of course, for the 50 million people and growing without insurance, this becomes a moot point for them. Whatever they do will cost them money, usually lots of money. And if one doesn't have health insurance, it's quite likely because one can't afford it, either due to budgetary business costs, lack of affordable local resources or simply out of work.

But even for the few who continue to have medical insurance, eye care is not free. It's part of an overall plan with a monthly cost for many, and for others, it's not even an option. In the US, the first thing to do is to check the costs, regardless of the problem and the solution. And, as is often the case, if the decision is to go with a private plan such as Lasik and other state of the art surgeries, the costs are astronomical and not always covered.

Enter Operation Miracle, an idea born of Cuba and Venezuela's mutual plan to make Venezuela 100% literate for the first time, just like Cuba. During the first years of the new millennium, Cuban reading teachers in Caracas found that many older people couldn't learn to read because they couldn't see properly. If the country was to have 100% literacy, then everyone, including the old and infirm, needed the ability to see the words they were reading. And since most of the illiterate were from the poorer barrios, the eye surgery needed to be free of charge. No other solution was tenable.

According to a May 20, 2009, report by the BBC entitled, Cuba pushes its 'medical diplomacy', "'Fidel Castro always considered health a major priority so he asked us to devise a simple fast operation, a sort of miracle to restore people's sight,' said Dr Marcelino Rio, director of the Pando Ferrer hospital and head of Operation Miracle.

The Cubans have turned mass production eye operations into a fine art. PandoFerrerHospital alone can perform 300 operations a day. Treatments range from cataracts and glaucoma to corneal transplants. Most of the equipment is European and Asian; US companies cannot sell to Cuba because of the trade embargo. There are similar facilities throughout the island as well as dozens of eye surgery centers which the Cubans have opened across the Americas and parts of Africa."

In December, 2007, the program celebrated its million patient milestone as reported by Gabriel Davalos, "More than one million people from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa have recovered their vision thanks to the Operation Miracle free eye-surgery program started by Cuba...Dr. Elia Rosa Lemus Lago, a staff member of the Council of State, described the advanced ophthalmology technology that Cuba has acquired and put at the service of patients. Equipment she said offers high quality attention that has also benefited 150,000 Cubans.

Operation Miracle has taken on major proportions with 165 Cuban institutions taking part in one way or another. In all there is a network of 49 ophthalmologic centers with 82 operating rooms in 14 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Lemus noted." According to the article from BBC, by May, 2009, Operation Miracle has already helped more than 1.6 million people. And not one patient paid one thin dime.

But this isn't an isolated event, either. Cuba has long been sending doctors and medical staff to afflicted areas around the world and always for free. It has sent teams of thousands of doctors to Pakistan and China to help in their earthquake relief, flown teams to Central America and the Caribbean for their hurricane relief, and even offered to send 1,100 doctors to the US right after Katrina happened. The US, however, said it had no medical crisis to speak of and refused all medical and other help from Cuba. I wonder if the families of those who died right after Katrina happened would be in complete agreement with then President Bush and his outstanding FEMA director, Michael Brown.

Cuba's tireless efforts to help other countries have not gone unrecognized by the international community. In the face of an ever-increasing terrorist problem around the world, the United Nations voted to create its first ever Human Rights Council. According to its website, "The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the UN system made up of 47 States responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. The Council was created by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them."

But more importantly than just the creation of a council of international dignitaries to try to stop this global spread of human rights violations, is the fact that for one of the rarest of moments at the UN, the United States was not voted as a founding member, but Cuba was. The world had apparently seen enough of a country that starts one illegal war after another and voted, instead, for a country that starts one free medical school after another.

The internet magazine ZNet, published the UN speech by Felipe Perez Roque, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cuba, entitled, Exit U.S., Enter Cuba. In part he said, "Today is a particularly symbolic day. Cuba is a founding member of the Human Rights Council and the United States is not. Cuba was elected with the overwhelming support of 135 countries; more than two-thirds of the United Nations General Assembly, while the United States did not even dare to run as a candidate.

The election for Cuba came at a moment in which nearly 30,000 Cuban doctors were saving lives and alleviating the pain in 70 countries, while the United States reached that stage with 150,000 invading soldiers, sent to kill and die in an unjust and illegal war.

The election for Cuba came with more than 300,000 patients from 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean who were recovering their eyesight thanks to the cost-free surgeries performed by Cuban eye specialists. It came for the United States with over 100,000 civilians murdered and 2,500 American youths dead in a war concocted to steal a country's oil and give away sumptuous contracts to a group of cronies of the President of the world's sole superpower."

Over the past 30 years the destinies of both countries have marched down decidedly different paths. Cuba has rededicated its revolution to alleviating suffering and oppression around the world. It has sent doctors to the far corners of the Earth to help the afflicted. It has set up schools in many countries, provided medical training for hundreds of thousands from around the world, and continued to pioneer new treatments at no cost to the patient.

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57 year old Californian male - I've lived in four different countries, USA, Switzerland, Mexico, Venezuela - speak three languages fluently, English, French, Spanish - part-time journalist for Empower-Sport Magazine. I also write four newsletters.

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