On June 8th, we visited the Brothers Ameijeiras Hospital, which you might recognize as the Cuban hospital featured in Michael Moore’s Sicko. Though the building was originally meant to house the national bank, the newly-victorious Revolutionary government altered construction plans, as Batista and his officials had stolen all the money from the treasury before fleeing to Miami. In 1982, the hospital officially opened. In the lobby, you can see photos of three of the five Ameijeiras brothers for whom the hospital was named. All five brothers played an important role in the uprising against Batista. According to Fidel’s hospital inauguration speech, one brother died in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, a second was murdered on his way to join the rebel forces in the Sierra Maestra, and a third was killed in Havana during an ambush by Batista’s forces. Of the two remaining brothers, one was imprisoned by the regime and the other was one of the 12 men who survived the Granma landing and went on to form the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra.
In Cuba, medicine is strongly linked to the values and images of the Revolution. Apart from the literacy campaign and reform of the education system, medicine was one of the areas on which the Revolutionary government focused most strongly. Cuba now has a fully subsidized medical system, meaning that all care is free (including abortion and plastic surgery). Cuban medical schools provide training, housing, and supplies free of charge to Cuban and low-income students from all over the world, including the United States. Though a developing country economically, Cuba now rivals developed countries in terms of infant mortality and maternal death rates, and the most common causes of death on the island are the same as in the US – the so called “developed-world pandemics” of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Cuban doctors travel around the world to assist in times of emergency or as long-term help through bilateral agreements, for example the Cuba-Venezuela pact in which Cuba exports doctors and imports subsidized oil. The US government rejected a Cuban offer to send doctors to Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina, claiming it was part of a pro-Castro propaganda campaign.
Despite the achievements of the Cuban health system, it still faces problems in maintaining a high level of care. Cuba cannot purchase equipment from the United States or from international companies in which the US investors have a financial stake, making the acquisition of adequate instruments difficult in this age of globalization. Though food and medical products are supposedly excepted from the embargo on trade with Cuba, a complicated licensing process is necessary for each purchase, essentially invalidating the exception. Cuba then either has to import medicines and equipment from China, Venezuela, or Europe, or import raw materials and produce its own.
Though the Cuban healthcare system clearly faces problems, such as varying hospital quality and long waits for non-urgent care, it seems to have succeeding in overcoming many of the failures of the US system. People do not go broke trying to pay for medical care. Compare that to this recent news story from North Carolina, about an unemployed man who robbed a bank of one dollar in order to secure a jail sentence that would guarantee him some level of health care.