Boston Globe Touts Wonders of Cuba’s “Free Universal Healthcare”

August 29th, 2005 2:40 AM
“Free universal healthcare has long been the crowning achievement of this socialist state,” Boston Globe reporter Indira A.R. Lakshmanan touted from Havana in a front page story last Thursday. In the August 25 article headlined, “As Cuba loans doctors abroad, some patients object at home,” Lakshmanan relayed all the cliches, promoted by the left, about the wonders of Cuban health care, without any regard to the accuracy of the figures or the quality of the health care workers. But before that, Lakshmanan blamed the U.S., not Cuba’s communism, for the terrible state of its economy as she described it as “crippled by the U.S. embargo in place since 1963.” The Globe reporter championed how, thanks to “one of the best doctor-patient ratios in the world,” the “small country has made significant contributions to reducing infant mortality rates and serving disaster victims worldwide.” Lakshmanan trumpeted how “advocates of the Cuban system point out that all Cubans are entitled to free healthcare and medicine, while more than 44 million American residents -- nearly one of six people -- have no health insurance.”

Full CyberAlert follows. For today’s MRC CyberAlert.

The Boston Globe story reminded me of an even more enthusiastic newspaper story, which ran almost exactly a year ago, about the wonders of Cuban health care. From the August 16, 2004 CyberAlert:
USA Today lent its news pages to a Havana-datelined story, ostensibly tied to Fidel Castro’s 78th birthday, which treated as credible the claims by one of Castro’s doctors that Cubans can live 120 years. “Cuba pursues a 120-year-old future,” blared the August 13 headline. “Nation strives for world's longest life expectancy,” trumpeted the subhead. Reporter Eric Sabo’s lead: “There's a good chance that Fidel Castro, who marks his 78th birthday today, could keep going for another 40 years, the Cuban leader's personal physician says.” Check out this sentence in Sabo’s “news” story: “Cuban officials say the same revolutionary zeal that has driven nearly five decades of socialism can overcome the ravages of time.”

An excerpt from the August 25 front page Boston Globe story by Indira A.R. Lakshmanan:

HAVANA -- Free universal healthcare has long been the crowning achievement of this socialist state, but the system is now under fire from Cubans who complain that quality and access are suffering as they lose tens of thousands of medical workers to Venezuela in exchange for cheap oil, which this impoverished country desperately needs.

The close friendship between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has netted Venezuela a loan of 20,000 Cuban health workers -- including 14,000 doctors, according to the Venezuelan government -- who work in poor barrios and rural outposts for stipends seven times higher on average than their salaries at home. Castro has vowed to send Chavez as many as 10,000 additional medical workers by year's end.

In return for farming out more than one-fifth of its doctors to the petroleum-rich state, Cuba is permitted to import 90,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela under preferential terms. The arrangement gives Cuba's struggling economy, crippled by the US embargo in place since 1963, the biggest boost since the country lost Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s.

The Cuban doctors program is wildly popular among Venezuela's poor. But Cubans have begun to object that the exodus of their healthcare workers is taking a toll on medical care for Cubans. Most people interviewed would speak only on condition that they not be identified or asked that just their first names be used, for fear of reprisals....

Cuban doctors and nurses have long worked overseas in humanitarian missions, and their small country has made significant contributions to reducing infant mortality rates and serving disaster victims worldwide. With one of the best doctor-patient ratios in the world, Cuba could afford to loan more than 52,000 medical workers over the last four decades to 95 needy countries, including Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Haiti, according to official figures.

But over the last 2 1/2 years, as Castro and Chavez's cooperation has blossomed, the Cuban assistance program has substantially increased the number of medical workers overseas, with the overwhelming majority in Venezuela....

With 66,567 doctors, Cuba boasts a ratio of 1 doctor per 170 citizens, compared with 1 doctor per 188 residents in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. The emphasis on preventive, personalized care has yielded life expectancy rates almost identical to those in the United States, and infant mortality rates even lower than its northern neighbor's, WHO data show.

Advocates of the Cuban system point out that all Cubans are entitled to free healthcare and medicine, while more than 44 million American residents -- nearly one of six people -- have no health insurance.

The much-praised system has suffered setbacks, however, since the cutoff of Soviet aid some 15 years ago, with hospitals and clinics in need of renovation and equipment, pharmaceutical costs soaring, and patients complaining that they must bring their own bedclothes, sheets, food, and fans to hospitals.

But complaints about a lack of medical personnel are new, dating to the cooperation with Venezuela that some observers disparagingly call the “oil-for-doctors program."...

In a July 26 speech, Castro dedicated a long passage to improvements to healthcare, including renovations at 50 hospitals and repairs to nearly a third of 444 health centers known as polyclinics. Castro said nearly all polyclinics now have electrocardiographs and ultrasound. “I know how much a heart bypass costs in the US....I dream that one day Americans will come to Cuba to receive treatment," he said, to approving applause.

But when he boasted that “100,000 Venezuelan brothers and sisters" will fly to Cuba for eye treatment this year, a number of Cubans watching at home groaned at what they perceive as favoritism toward outsiders.

“It's all the Venezuelans who need cataracts surgery first, and then the Cubans if there's any time left," sniffed Georgina, 60, a retired Havana clerk.

Carlos, a 37-year-old engineer with a chronic ear problem, used to get house calls. He resents waiting 20 days for an appointment because his specialist is in Venezuela. “Now when I need hearing tests, I see technicians who haven't even graduated yet," he muttered.

Many medical workers interviewed dismissed the criticisms as the gripes of a spoiled population unaccustomed to waiting.

“Before, there was a family doctor for every block or two of this city. Now you may have to walk six blocks -- so what?" scoffed Migdalia, a 57-year-old nurse at a Havana polyclinic. “It's still free and the quality is the same, you just have to make an appointment nowadays or wait....Cubans can even get plastic surgery -- a free boob job," she exclaimed, “so what are they complaining about?"

Matilde, 56, a senior doctor in Camagüey, explained that ''before, we had a doctor in every factory, every school, every preschool. They were frankly underutilized. We've eliminated a lot of doctors at midlevel administrative desk jobs, and it's probably a leaner, more efficient system now."...

Meanwhile, medical training in Cuba has been trimmed by two years, from six years of study and a minimum four years of residency, a change that will bring more doctors into the system faster. Medical school enrollment and graduation rates are up from last year, according to official figures.

Matilde, a veteran of three overseas missions, added that Cubans shouldn't forget the exchange with Venezuela is not a one-way street; “Because of the US embargo, we need trade and oil from Venezuela. Cuba is benefiting too."

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