Journalistic laziness on the streets of Havana
It’s not difficult to find the truth behind Cuba’s ‘healthcare for all’
Cuba is now in the midst of an official nine days of mourning for Fidel Castro—that’s a convenient way of barring street celebrations. Liberal media in the United States are in the midst of nine days of hagiography. Cal Thomas yesterday rightly skewered left-leaning journalists for praising Castro. He attributed their praise to ideology, which is true—but I also wonder about the role of laziness.
After all, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who has traveled to Cuba, said Castro “will be revered” for providing “medical care to all of his people.” Jim Avila on ABC spoke of Cuba’s “advances in healthcare.” Martin Savidge on CNN said Castro has brought about “healthcare for all.” They should know better, and it wouldn’t be hard.
I spent only a week in Havana 12 years ago, so I have no expertise, but even I was able to avoid my government-supplied driver, wander into pharmacies, and talk with doctors. At a pharmacy that was supposed to be one of the best stocked, since it was across the street from the Havana Children’s Hospital, I flipped through one price list that hung next to the counter and was supposed to be restricted to M.D.s, but no one stopped me.
The impressive list even showed that 20 50-milligram tablets of Vitamin E could be purchased for $1.20. The pharmacist, though, had no vitamins, nor much of anything else. Items on the shelves were there for show: They could not be purchased. Doctors confirmed that medicine was scarce, and hospitals (except those restricted to communist leaders and foreigners) were seen as unhygienic. At one hospital the new tradition was BYOX: bring your own X-ray film.
CNN’s Kate Snow in 2002 reported that “every Cuban has a primary care physician” who gets “to know their patients and even make house calls.” Havana doctors told me that was a joke. They were paid so little that some were becoming cab drivers so they could get dollars from tourists and move from peso stores, where little was available, to dollar stores, where they could buy items that were expensive but at least available. For example, a little fan that sold for $8 at a Target store in Texas cost $24 in Cuba.
The governmental health system was so bad that some churches were distributing medicine to church members, even though state health officials threatened them with “severe sanctions” for doing so.
The governmental health system was so bad that some churches were distributing medicine to church members, even though state health officials threatened them with “severe sanctions” for doing so. One priest told me he distributed vitamins, antibiotics, aspirin, and anti-diarrhea medications brought to him by trustworthy Spanish tourists. He was operating illegally, but “the needs of the people are so great that the political cost of shutting us down is too great for the government.”
That was his experience. Others had seen officials turn down church requests to build homes for the elderly and even citizen attempts to organize the collection of garbage that was rotting in the streets. Some churches were ready and willing to do better than the government in helping the poor and particularly the elderly, but it was officially and ideologically the responsibility of the state to provide all social services.
Everything compassionate people did was an indictment of government failure—and Cuba’s Communist Party was desperately trying to avoid facing the truth. As several people said when officials acknowledged the inadequacy of government programs but still did not allow private programs, “Ni comen ni dejan comer” (“They don’t eat, neither do they let others eat”).
If reporters shake their government minders, roam around, and talk with Christians who have set up compassionate programs in the face of government opposition, they can learn much—but they have to work at it.
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