Breaking the Blockade against Cuba: Interview with Claudia Camba

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

Claudia Camba: 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.

RV: And this mission is later extended to Argentina?

CC: 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.

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

CC: 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.

RV: 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)?

CC: 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)

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

CC: 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.

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

CC: 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)

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

CC: 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.

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

CC: 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)

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

CC: 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.

RV: 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?

CC: 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.

  • Published in Cuba

Bipartisan Support for Ties with Cuba Continues in U.S.

The bipartisan support to engagement with Cuba has strongly increased in the United States over the past two years and we will continue seeing it in the future, said the president of a coalition that promotes ties with the Caribbean island.

The president of Engage Cuba, James Williams, regretted the announcement made last month by President Donald Trump on the reverse of some aspects of the opening to Cuba, which he described as a step back on the path to the normalization of bilateral relations.

However, he pointed out that amid that situation, the effusive support to continue seeking more engagement with the neighboring country, with which the United States reestablished diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, was notable.

We are having a dialogue on Cuba that we had not seen for a long time and that is very different even from the one that existed two years ago, Williams said in an interview with Prensa Latina.

According to Williams, it is a great achievement for the two countries, and for people on U.S. territory who think that engagement is the best path after 55 years of a failed policy of restrictions.

He pointed out that although hard-line politicians want to reverse things, it is evident that the context is not the same as in other times, because steps have been taken in matters like more U.S. citizens visiting Cuba, travels by airlines and cruises, business interests.

If the Trump administration does not involve constructively in the engagement, others will have to take the place and continue building bridges, said Williams, whose organization seeks the lifting of the economic, commercial and financial blockade that Washington has imposed on Cuba.

'I think that we are seeing that and that we will see even more, more members of Congress and governors will go to Cuba, as well as other people who see the vacuum of leadership in that regard and want to fill it,' he noted.

Asked about the coalition's work after Trump's decision, Williams stated that they have focused on regulations that must be announced in the next few months.

When he signed the Cuba policy memorandum, the president said that travels by U.S. citizens to Cuba would be limited and that economic, commercial and financial transactions between U.S. companies and Cuban firms linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the intelligence and security services would be prohibited, among other measures.

The announcement on June 16 was a speech and a presidential policy directive, but the interpretation of how those measures will be regulated is what will have a real impact, Williams explained.

According to the president of Engage Cuba, they are interested in listening to the voices of the Cuban people, including the private sector, and that they are not only rules designed offstage by political groups in Washington.

Our hope would be that the leadership at the bipartisan level includes that and that the White House, after making deals in the shadows before, comes to the fore, listens to experts from both sides to have a real conversation, he noted.

It would be the best path, that the two governments can sit at the table and talk, that the peoples dialogue with each other and that the process is not guided by only few, he added.

However, he described as uncertain the role to be played by the agencies in charge of the new measures, because they were already marginalized when the Cuba policy was reviewed.

'Will they play a role now? I hope so, their technical experience is essential to prepare those regulations, but that does not mean necessarily that the administration will listen to them,' he stated.

Williams noted that Engage Cuba is making efforts to explain why relations are important to the largest universe of people possible, in the Capitol, in the White House, the agencies or the state governments.

He pointed out that most of those involved are waiting for new guidelines to come into effect three months after the president's announcement, but anything might happen until then, because the federal agencies accumulate lots of tasks, staff problems and many other important matters to attend to.

Anyway, he said, we have a limited window of time; therefore, we are working on the matter of bilateral ties with Cuba as if there is no tomorrow.

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Trump Divides the Cuban “Exile” in Miami

The Spanish news agency EFE insinuated so from Miami.

It highlights the controversy between followers and opponents of approaching Cuba, “it can grow larger” with the changes announced by Donald Trump scheduled next Friday.

According to the same source, this will come amidst great expectation.

Such setback they say that the “anti-Castro groups” of Miami are eagerly expecting the so-called concessions to the island.

EFE says that the core is whether or not, a turning in the politics set under Barack Obama’s administration towards Cuba.

Such a setback, it underlined, it was a promise made by Trump in his electoral campaign of 2016 at the headquarters of Brigade 2506.

That military group, created by the CIA in 1961, attacked Cuba and became symbol of the far-right with Cuban origins.

EFE highlights that its association of veterans trusts Trump to meet his end regarding the Cuban issue.

This group, and other anti-Cuban groups financed by Washington, has asked the president “a zero politics towards Havana”, reads the comment.

“Obama’s concessions were an insult to 57 years of dictatorship”, declared the head of what is left of the failed brigade, Humberto Díaz-Argüelles.

The priority for Orlando Gutiérrez, head of the group Directorio Democratico, is still “reestablishment of freedom and democracy as objective of the North American politics towards Cuba.”

A commitment that, according to Gutiérrez, passes by turning back those “unilateral concessions” towards Cuba and in the “economic opening carried out without the régime granting anything back.”

On the contrary, The CubaOne Foundation, integrated by young Cuban-Americans, asked the leader not to return to the Cold War tactics and defend the North American interests as well as the well-being of the Cuban people.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Democracy Movement and opposed to the so-called blockade against the island, pled that any restriction doesn't affect the ties “of people to people.”

In that panorama, a survey published last Monday by Engage Cuba Coalition dismantles the thesis that republicans oppose the politics passed by Obama toward this.

In fact, the organization asserts, a majority of republican voters want to keep ties with the Cubans.

The study, carried out last May by the entity that comprises private companies, indicates that 64% of republican voters support the changes made by President Obama, while 22% is against it.

“Our new politics towards Cuba has strengthened the economy, created employments in the United States, and reinforced national security”, said the coalition.

They also alerted that it would be a shame that Trump pull back the current politics with Havana.

“If the President is willing to negotiate with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and the Philippines, why not with Cuba?”, wondered the president of Engage Cuba, James Williams.

Last Tuesday a journalist from the New Herald, Nora Gámez Torres added:

Even when President Trump has not announced yet what his politics toward the island will consist on, a result is already evident:

Cuban opponents of different political trends approve the need to make changes to press their government.

One of the leaders who command the labyrinth of groups directed from Washington, José Daniel Ferrer, wrote to favor the change because Cuba supports Venezuela.

Ferrer, let’s remember, supported the approach that started in 2014 by Barack Obama toward Cuba.

The “dissident”, remarked Gámez Torres, didn't specify which measures the U.S. president should revert.

The journalist remembered that Obama favored changes “boosted by the private sector and not by the dissidents.”

That, according to her point of view, divided to a degree the Cuban opposition.

But now, she emphasized, many of its members prefer a political change that joins the defense of human rights and the blockade to the investing of foreign currencies in a difficult moment for the Cuban nation.

There is the true face of Cuba’s enemies, only hours away from Trump to unroll his new politics towards Cuba.

End the Cuba trade embargo and support US exports

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to join a “people-to-people” trip to Cuba, visiting not only Havana but smaller towns, such as Ceinfuegos and Trinidad. We met with Cubans from many walks of life, in their businesses, on their farms and in their homes.

The Cuban government has slowly opened their economy to private enterprise, especially in the visitor sector, and has lifted restrictions on technology and access to a world of information. The new influx of American visitors, eating at private restaurants, staying in bed-and-breakfasts booked on Airbnb and supporting artists and musicians is slowly changing the Cuban economy.

But as relations between the U.S. and Cuba are starting to thaw, the trade embargo remains, leaving U.S. companies on the outside as our competitors from abroad gain a foothold.

While the 1962 trade embargo appears to have trapped Cuba in the 1950s, it is a superficial view supported by the sight of old American cars and the few signs of post-1960 construction in city centers. Behind that old facade are modern products from countries from across the globe — Samsung refrigerators, LG flat-screen TVs, French and South Korean cars and smartphones. While Cuba trades with China, Canada, Europe and Brazil, there are no American cars on the road manufactured after 1961, no GE appliances, no parts for their fishing boats or construction materials. Our minor footprint is in the form of food products, like Tabasco sauce and Coke — though the Coke comes from Mexico, not Atlanta.

Meanwhile, there is an underground economy that imports products into the country on every flight from Miami. Mountains of shrink-wrapped products are included as “luggage” by Cubans traveling with U.S. visas. Ask a restaurant owner how he has Costco salt and pepper grinders on each table, and he will tell you it is the same way he has umbrellas from Home Depot: He pays a big surcharge to bring the items back from his regular visit to Florida.

While I am old enough to remember the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, most Cubans, like most Americans, are not. It is hard to explain how an island of 11 million people can still be seen as a threat to peace and stability in the region. In fact, we know it isn’t.

A Gallup poll in 2015 found that almost 60 percent of Americans support ending the trade embargo. As far back as 2009, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — not exactly a bastion of liberalism — testified before Congress that “The U.S. embargo on Cuba is one of the biggest foreign policy failures of the past half century and should come to an end.”

The world economy has changed since the early 1960s, so we can never account for 70 percent of Cuban imports like we did before the embargo. However, we should see some new American cars on the streets of Havana amongst those from Europe and Asia, more agricultural goods and technology products.

Change is coming to Cuba, and America should recognize what’s good for business and be a trading partner in that process.

Parliament of Catalonia Lashes out US Blockade on Cuba

The parliament of Catalonia today urged the United States to end the blockade imposed on Cuba for over half a century, according to the international community.

At Joan Josep Nuet´s suggestion, deputy of the Catalonia Yes We Can Left-Wing Coalition, the autonomous legislative chamber adopted a motion of condemnation to that economic, commercial and financial siege.

In his presentation, Nuet stressed that despite the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between USA and Cuba, the US government continues applying that siege to the Caribbean island.

He stated that the extraterritorial reach of this unilateral measure is the main obstacle for Cuban people progress and full normalization with its USA.

He denounced that the US administration maintains sanctions to third countries, which, he stressed that it violates international law and contradicts the terms of coexistence expressed in the precepts of the UN Charter.

Similar motions were also confirmed by 77 Spanish municipalities, according to Cuban diplomatic sources.

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Cuba-U.S.: February 7, 1962

More than half a century later, ordinance 3447 signed by Kennedy has not lose all its strength in official circles of Washington; it has neither erased the political-moral isolation of those clinging to its loose ends.

On February 7, 1962 started the execution of the already virtually established North American blockade against Cuba.

On January 1, 1959 the tyranny of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and hours later Fidel Castro Ruz forewarned: “The happiness is great, but perhaps from now on, everything will be more difficult”, said the revolutionary leader.

Where resides the core of the bilateral conflict that Washington government imposed –around that time - to frustrate the agrarian reformation and other domestic measures?

Firstly, the Revolution had shattered the neocolonial status given to Cuba since the military North American intervention of 1898.

A social justice program began shortly afterwards for millions of “ordinary people” and expelled from Cuban soil the military North American mission that supported tyrant Batista.

Some analysts characterize this singular period as something Washington called “the original sin” of the Cuban Revolution.

That explains that three weeks prior January 1, 1959, the word blockade against Cuba was already mentioned.

Such one-sided politics was further defined on February 3, 1962, when the U.S. President at the time, John F. Kennedy, passed ordinance number 3447 that established the “embargo” of trade with its former colony.

That document halted all imports to the northern country of all Cuban products, since when?

Starting at 12 a.m. February 7, 1962.

The document read: “I hereby order the Secretary of Commerce to keep banning all exports from the United States to Cuba…”

When was the blockade put into force?

When the former Cuban colony still greatly depended of its commerce with the powerful neighbor from the North, and a serious military crisis between both countries was looming.

On February 7, 1962 the already virtually established North American blockade against Cuba was set in motion.

More than half century later, ordinance 3447 signed by Kennedy it’s still strong in official spheres of Washington.

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