National Catholic Register

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In Cuba, Relief Outfit Puts Medicine on Empty Shelves

BY Lisa Pevtzow

February 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/8/98 at 2:00 PM

 

NEW YORK—At the final papal Mass late last month in the crumbling glory of Havana, Cuba, a husky man in his mid-40s made his way to one of the priests administering communion, then turned to walk back, seemingly unmoved.

A few seconds later, tears streamed down the man's face, his emotions seeming to come from nowhere.

“Make no mistake about it,” said Terry Kirch, director of the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) in New York who visited Cuba for Pope John Paul II's recent visit, “Cuba has changed forever.”

Founded in 1928 by a young resident intensely troubled by the vast misery caused by leprosy in the Caribbean, CMMB has evolved into a little-known but extremely effective organization that sends pharmaceuticals and doctors to the areas of the world that need them most. Each year, it ships out an average of $44 million in medical supplies, as well as organizing a volunteer program that sends doctors, nurses, and administrators to Third World hospitals and villages in the direst straits.

The causes CMMB takes on are often the least fashionable and the aid it gives is oftentimes the most practical—de-worming children, for instance, and providing basic medical supplies, which can be found here in any decent first-aid kit.

“I've seen people with terminally ill conditions from cancer or AIDS and they don't have aspirin for the pain,” said Sister Maura O'Donohue, MMM, the organization's program director. “They don't have the simplest of medicines.”

According to Sister O'Donohue, the necessary provisions in Third World countries are the most elemental—and the cheapest of modern-day drugs—pain relievers, anti-fungal ointments, deworming pills, antibiotics for eye, lung and skin infections, and anti-malarial drugs.

Over Christmas, CMMB shipped $1.5 million in drugs, including a six-month supply of insulin and antibiotics, to Cuba to shore up its alarming lack of even the most basic medical supplies and equipment due in part to the U.S. embargo, said Kirch.

Organization officials, on a fact-finding visit the previous month, came back with reports of a social decay that matched the physical deterioration of the once grand capital city. Elderly people were, quite literally, facing starvation, and pharmacy shelves were empty of even the most basic drugs. Simple, everyday things to us, such as pain killers and antibiotics, are also in excruciatingly short supply, Kirch said.

One 769-bed hospital, which also served 1,000 outpatients a day, had nothing but glucose on hand, according to Kathleen Higgens, CMMB's pharmaceutical coordinator. While she was in Cuba, the communist nation's Ministry of Health issued a report that only a two-week supply of insulin was left in the entire country.

Even the infant formula that CMMB sent to Cuba went to a parish network of soup kitchens that often serve as a lifeline for the poor. Workers, said Higgens, try to ensure that everyone gets a glass of milk a day. CMMB plans to send other nutritional supplements next month.

Higgens, Kirch, and other CMMB workers tell a fascinating tale of how a non-profit Catholic organization manages to deliver aid in one of the last communist regimes. Since 1992, when Fidel Castro officially pronounced Cuba a secular state, rather than an atheistic one, CMMB has funneled more than $16 million worth of medicine to Cuba with the help of Catholic Relief Services.

And it has not always been so easy. Unlike some Third World nations that have demanded the organization to fork over cash in so-called “duty,” CMMB has not encountered corruption in Cuba. What it has found is a socialist bureaucracy, desperately needing the stocks that CMMB donates, but disinclined to permit that it be known where they come from.

Before 1992, the bureaucracy mandated that CMMB's medical supplies be given to Cuban hospitals evenly across the board, and not to the neediest. Five years ago, Havana relented, permitting CMMB, through Caritas, to offer its supply where the need was greatest. According to state regulations, the government receives and dispenses all the medicines, but it allows Caritas Cuba to quietly designate the most needy hospitals and clinics.

“They want everything to come from the government,” said Higgens.

Despite this, although Cuba does not broadcast the fact that much of its pharmaceutical stock is donated by Catholic organizations, on the street it is well known, said Higgens.

She and CMMB's board Chairman Thomas Murphy Jr. went on a one-week visit to Cuba in November, flying from one end of Cuba to the other, sometimes in a crowded, rickety Soviet-era plane, to assess Cuba's medical needs and ensure that medical supplies were reaching the most needy. They also met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana and other Cuban bishops, as well as with officials from other Catholic aid organizations.

And likewise, although the name of CMMB has been suppressed, the organization's good works are popularly credited to the Church, rather than to the government. When a sufferer of cancer is given something to relieve the pain, it is whispered, “This is from the Church.”

The work of Caritas, which serves as a clearinghouse for CMMB's medications, stressed Kirch, “has been crucial in getting the Cuban Church established as a potent social force that benefits all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.”

In Cuba, this fall and early winter, Caritas and CMMB made up stickers and hats advertising the papal visit, said Higgens. There had been no media coverage of the trip and the news was spread initially by word of mouth. The Church was actually going from door-to-door telling people that the Pope was coming. Pictures of John Paul II appeared in public places with a countdown indicating the number of days until his arrival.

The expectations were enormous. One cab driver confided in Murphy that he wished the Pope would move to the island and whispered, “the Pope's picture is in my heart.”

Kirch came back from Cuba last week convinced that the visit of John Paul II to one of the last remaining bastions of socialism will reenergize the Cuban Church and leave profound social changes in its wake.

“The visit revealed and reaffirmed the Catholic soul of the country,” said Kirch. “The Church is a definite force here.”

He cautioned, however, that once the excitement of the visit dies down, it remains to be seen whether Castro will heed the Pope's urgent request that the Church be allowed to pursue educational and catechetical work, in addition to its humanitarian task, and that political prisoners be released.

“How easy it is to take our religious freedom in the West for granted,” he said.

Lisa Pevtzow writes from Skokie, Ill.