EspañolBy the time I climbed the steps of the emergency room entrance in San Miguel, Havana, I could already tell that the supposed first-class health care provided in Cuba was a myth. Hospitals in the island’s capital are literally falling apart.
Friends told me to dress “like a Cuban” and not to speak while inside, since my Argentinean accent would give me away the moment I said hello. A member of the opposition Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) party came along to guide me in my journey to the core of communist-style medicine.
We entered the hospital at 10 p.m. on an ordinary Saturday night in September. Three out of the hospital’s four stories were closed. Only the ER was operational.
“We have been waiting for an ambulance for four hours,” yelled a man wearing green scrubs, who seemed to be a doctor. I sat on one of the four plastic chairs in the waiting area. My friend kept still and gestured to let me know I should remain silent and listen to the patients and their relatives.
Twenty minutes went by, and still no ambulance. The man in green scrubs remained at his mother’s side on an improvised stretcher, trying not to lose his patience. They looked like characters from the play Waiting for Godot.
The scarce equipment available gave the building the appearance of a makeshift medical camp, rather than a hospital in the nation’s capital.
I stood up and continued my tour. Two nurses stared at us but didn’t say a word as we entered an intensive-care unit, where the facility’s air-conditioned area began.
My guide — a taxi driver for tourists who don’t get to see this part of town — told me that all the doctors working the night shift are still in school. Indeed, none of them appeared to be older than 25.
The only working bathroom in the entire hospital had only one toilet. The door didn’t close, so you had to go with people outside watching. Toilet paper was nowhere to be found, and the floor was far from clean.
I saw biological waste discarded in a regular trash can. The beds had no linen, and the only equipment around was the bag of IV fluids hanging above them. All doctor’s offices had handwritten signs on the doors, and at least four patients waited outside each room. The average wait time for each was around three hours.
Orderlies were also nowhere to be seen. A young man had to push his mother on a stretcher until he reached the line of those waiting for an ambulance.
I left the hospital after a couple hours. Once outside, puzzled by the large bags the people entering the hospital were carrying, I asked my friend to explain.
“Well, they have to bring everything with them, because the hospital provides nothing. Pillows, sheets, medicine: everything,” he said.
Cuba’s Public Health Ministry runs all hospitals in the country and is in charge of centrally dictating public-health policies. The socialized medical system, delivered at no charge to Cuban patients, is a key propaganda tool of the Castro regime.
“Since the triumph of the Revolution, making sure that Cubans have free health care has become a fundamental social cornerstone,” Granma, the Communist Party’s official media outlet, boasts in an article. “This is in line with the humanism and social justice of our revolutionary process.”
Socialists and progressives outside of Cuba have also been known to gush over the island’s state-run health-care system.
In 2007, filmmaker Michael Moore released a documentary that featured US citizens who traveled to Cuba to get free medical treatment. Moore claimed they received services comparable to what ordinary Cuban citizens would have received.
“The Cuban people have free universal health care. They’ve become known as having not only one of the best health-care systems, but as being one of the most generous countries in providing doctors and medical equipment to third-world countries,” Moore says in Sicko.
Yilian Jiménez Expósito, general director of Cuban Medical Services, told Granma in an interview that “the secret lies in the medical training under a socialist system, where doctors do not view the patient as merchandise or a customer; where every citizen has a right to health care from birth to the grave, without discrimination.”
However, Hilda Molina, a Cuban neurosurgeon who turned against Castro, explained in an interview with El Cato that the whole sector is under tight government control, which shuts downs private alternatives or independent organizations.
“These arbitrary measures, aside from many other negative consequences, had a terrible impact, ethically: the sacred doctor-patient relationship was replaced with an impersonal government-patient dynamic. When patients are forced to seek care from government-sanctioned doctors and facilities, they suffer distress, whether consciously or unconsciously, immersed in a deep sensation of insecurity,” she said.
“The regime has neither provided Cubans with equality nor fairness in health care. The ruling elite, their relatives and friends, get better service than the rest,” Molina lamented.