Cuban, Venezuelan Volunteers Complete Mission in Ecuador

Gonzalo Ortiz

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 8 (IPS) — Approximately 300 Cuban and 30 Venezuelan volunteer “brigadistas” have departed Ecuador, marking the end of the first phase of the “Manuela Espejo Mission,” conducting a complete study of disabilities in this country over the past year and a half.

According to the mission, named for Manuela Espejo (1757-1829) an Ecuadorian Independence figure, there are 294,166 people with physical, visual, hearing or mental disabilities, equivalent to 2.43 percent of the national population.

As expected, the provinces with highest populations also have the most people with disabilities: 74,833 in Guayas, on the Pacific coast, where the city of Guayaquil is located; and 45,098 in Pichincha, in the Andean sierra, home to the capital, Quito.

However, the highest prevalence of disabilities was found in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where the rate is 2.68 percent, resulting from conditions of extreme poverty and isolation.

The gender difference, meanwhile, is minimal: of those with disabilities, 50.43 percent are male, 49.57 percent female.

“The ‘brigadistas’ studied the biological, psychosocial, clinical and genetic aspects of the disabilities, going house-to-house in the 221 cantons of the 24 provinces in Ecuador, travelling by land, air and river over the course of 487 days,” said Vice-President Lenín Moreno.

Moreno, who coordinated the mission, uses a wheelchair since becoming paraplegic in 1998 when he was shot in the spine during a street mugging.  The mission had the personal support of Cuba’s President Raul Castro, and his brother and predecessor Fidel Castro, as well as of the Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

The Cuban and Venezuelan volunteer brigades — men and women — were accompanied by Ecuadorians who shared their specialties: physicians, geneticists, and psychologists, with logistical support and security provided by Ecuador’s armed forces.

Also participating were several government ministries and institutions, particularly the National Council on Disabilities (CONADIS), which for the last 20 years has coordinated policy and actions in this area and certifies individuals with disabilities so they have access to government services and exemptions.

Officials from the different entities, health specialists and the national and foreign volunteers took part in a rally on Friday, Dec. 3, in which the campaign’s results were presented.

An Ecuadorian physician from the Ministry of Health, who requested anonymity, told IPS at the event, “It was not necessary to bring in the Cubans and Venezuelans. We have enough people in Ecuador and the technical abilities necessary to carry out this work.”

The next day, on the national television, the vice-president applauded the foreign brigadistas and thanked the Cuban and Venezuelan presidents for their support. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, of the leftist PAIS Alliance party, was in Argentina at the time for the 20th Ibero-American Summit.

Moreno noted that Venezuela had donated approximately 20 million dollars in materials that had gone unused in similar mission in that country.

“Today we end an important phase in our work, presenting the country and the world with precise data and concrete figures about the reality of disabilities in Ecuador,” he said.

The volunteers found people with severe disabilities living in situations of extreme neglect, “including in cages or in holes in the ground,” according to a video documentary. Those individuals were relocated to hospitals and appropriate institutions.

The mission also distributed 76,000 units of mobility aids (crutches, canes, wheelchairs) and other necessary equipment (beds, mattresses, bedsore- prevention devices, stoves).

The results of the study will help the government determine policies for preventing disabilities and providing the appropriate services for those living with disabilities, whether physical or mental, said Moreno. He announced that the National Plan for Prevention of Disabilities would begin implementation in January.

Mercedes Gamez, head of the Cuban volunteer brigades, said in the final report about the effort that they visited about one million homes and assessed nearly 300,000 people with disabilities.

She insisted that disabilities should not be seen as inabilities “because the human organism generates neurological adaptive mechanisms.”

Her detailed report listed the different types of disability found in Ecuador, their causes, and degree, cross-referencing the data with information about housing, family income and access to health services.

Gamez also called for changing the environmental conditions and public policies in order to confront the problems associated with disabilities.

Milton Jijón, president of the National Association of Geneticists, told IPS, “Despite having highly qualified geneticists in Ecuador, we do not have the laboratories that would allow us to carry out the complete studies.” He said this lack of adequate labs justified the fact that more than 600 diagnostic tests were conducted in Cuba.

However, he said, “in the next phase I will demand that they provide us with the appropriate laboratories for determining the causes of the disabilities and to carry out prevention work.”

Moreno said that in the visit he made to Cuba to see Fidel Castro on Oct. 21, 2009, the octogenarian former president had showed him a detailed map of Ecuador and the various reports of what the brigadistas were doing.

“He knew more details than I did about what was happening in the mission,” said the vice-president. “We talked at length and he had thousands of questions about each province. How erudite the elderly become, don’t they,” he quipped.

The vice-president of Colombia, Angelino Garzón, requested help from Ecuador for a similar campaign in his country. As did Peru, which had sent observers who accompanied the brigadistas, said Moreno.

Latin American vice-presidents titled “Americas Without Barriers,” to adopt measures that promote democracy and regional solidarity — and Moreno will use the event to share Ecuador’s unprecedented experience.

“This is a great achievement of our country, because now we have a baseline from which we can plan,” physician Xavier Caicedo told IPS. He is the executive director of the non-governmental De Waal Foundation. However, he complained that the government did not include civil society organizations like his in conducting the mission.

“I have tried all sorts of way to approach the effort, to provide our independent support, because we have 10 years of experience in disabilities prevention in Ecuador and 25 years worldwide, but they have turned us down,” he said.

“My attempts (to be part of the campaign) were both formal and informal, written and in person, over months, but they were useless. The mission was a closed effort, and as far as I know, NGOs were not given any space, and are not part of the discussion about the national prevention plan that I’ve heard is going to be launched,” Caicedo said.