Of Health and Hope in Cuba

Veronica Vega

The Salvador Allende hospital in Havana. Photo: Raquel Pérez

HAVANA TIMES — I must confess I feel a profound aversion towards hospitals and polyclinics. This is not only because of the physical pain, misdiagnoses, indifference or mistreatment I have experienced in these, but also because of the association my mind invariably makes between these places and the time spent in waiting rooms.

Hours upon hours of waiting, feeling sick, shifting on an uncomfortable seat or worrying about my son’s illness. Waiting while I watch him cough, complain, cry, among other kids who also cry, and adults who completely disregard the sign posted in some emergency wards: “Please speak in a low tone of voice.”

Speaking rather more loudly than suggested, they converse, enumerate all manner of calamities, reprimand their kids and even argue about whose turn comes next.

Waiting time and that smell characteristic of hospitals, which I know only too well thanks to my frequent, asthma-related admittances as a child, have taken root deep in my subconscious.

Of course, I also have memories of the kind treatment I received from some of the hospital staff, of thoughtful gestures that moved me. At one point, I even reflected on how strange it was that, by a random twist of fate (or by providence), a stranger should care for me at a moment of pain.

As I’ve grown older, and Cuba’s health system has deteriorated, I have become so ill-disposed towards hospitals that I go to the doctor only when I have absolutely no other choice.

This morning, the symptoms of a kidney infection became so acute that I decided it was one of those moments when I didn’t have a choice. So, I went to the family doctor’s clinic, well equipped for the inevitable wait with a book by one of the “loves of my life”: the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato.

I have to admit a family clinic does not have the aggressive atmosphere typical of a hospital’s emergency ward. Emergencies are rare there and, as I was able to appreciate today, many people go to these clinics just to get a prescription, pick up medical test results or get their blood pressure measured.

That said, you still need to wait long before you can see the doctor, and venturing into Sábato’s universe was made rather difficult by the far from “low” tone of voice with which those around me conversed.

Interestingly enough, all of the people in the waiting room (twelve in total) were women. Seeing the irritation over the long wait in their faces – they began to protest when the second pregnant woman entered the doctor’s office, aware of how long those consultations generally take – I got to thinking, as I have done on other occasions, that the healthcare demand exceeds the offer in Cuba today.

I began looking at the walls, the bulletin boards showing information about breastfeeding, about the need to boil or sterilize tap water using “1 % Sodium Hypochlorite”. I was in pain, I needed to pee, I felt fatigue. But I returned to Sábato, to the words of a book he wrote in the twilight of his days, at the behest of those who insisted he write his memoirs before departing.

He was a man who, like many others, had believed that socialism held the answer to the world’s social injustices, who had the courage to condemn the horrors of Stalinism, who once wrote: “the one miracle capitalism has achieved is having concentrated more than eighty percent of all existing wealth in one fifth of the world’s population.”

A man who suffered because, every two seconds, a child dies of hunger, who suffered over the young men and women who wrote him in despair, looking for an answer that would give them a sound reason not to commit suicide. A man who was fond of quoting Strindberg, who said: “I do not detest human beings, I am afraid of them.”

At the end of this book, Sabato, a man who confessed that he doubted the validity of the arguments with which he had tried to find some meaning to human existence, addresses those who had asked him to write it: “Let us go out into the world, put our lives at risk for others, let us hope, with those who stretch out their arms, that a new wave of history will raise us from the ground. Maybe this is already happening in a silent and subterranean way, like the springs that throb beneath the frozen landscapes of the winter.”

These words were knocking around my head when, finally, it was my turn to see the doctor. She prescribed  a preventive treatment for the kidney infection, based on the symptoms I was already showing.

While sitting on a park bench with my son, waiting for the results of the blood test I had done at the polyclinic, in spite of the pain and the shivers that crawled up my body, I felt relieved. And it wasn’t exclusively thanks to Sabato. The doctor and lab technician who had, perhaps unwittingly, fulfilled their humble duties, were also responsible for this feeling.

I felt relieved, above all else, thanks to the need to cling to hope, which survives crises and catastrophes, the need to trust others, to not give in, which is inherent to human beings and stronger than any disheartening memory. As strong, at least, as our aversion towards discomfort, indifference or cruely.

And I thought: if only people, little by little, acknowledged this side of themselves (and not necessarily through a rational deduction, but, rather, through an instinctive appreciation of their own nature), how profoundly the world would change! How profoundly Cuba would change!

After all, most of us who criticize this country so much (even here, on the pages of the Havana Times), do it precisely because we cling to hope.

Veronica Vega

Veronica Vega: I believe that truth has power and the word can and should be an extension of the truth. I think that is also the role of Art and the media. I consider myself an artist, but above all, a seeker and defender of the Truth as an essential element of what sustains human existence and consciousness. I believe that Cuba can and must change and that websites like Havana Times contribute to that necessary change.

2 thoughts on “Of Health and Hope in Cuba

  • I found your article very moving, Veronica! It is truly wonderful and mysterious how the words of writers are able to lay dormant in books for decades, centuries, sometimes even milenia, only to have such a profound effect upon us when we open their pages. They are really like messages in bottles, cast into the sea, which somehow reach a far shore and are picked up by some unknown beachcomber. Right now I am reading a novel written in 1850. The edition (from a set) was published in 1868 and, from the condition of the book (leaves uncut) I am the first one in more than 140 years who has actually read this book–yet I feel it was written expressly for me! You communicate much the same wonder in your account of your encounter with Sabato. Likewise, despite the deteriorated conditions of your public health system, there are always doctors, nurses, technicians and aides who are compassionate and reaffirm our faith in the basic goodness of human nature.

  • Veronica quoted, ” “the one miracle capitalism has achieved is having concentrated more than eighty percent of all existing wealth in one fifth of the world’s population.”

    This is an incorrect understanding of capitalism. Wealth is not a zero sum game, wherein a fixed amount of wealth is divided up like a rationed loaf of bread. Wealth is created from work and intelligence. Over time, the total sum of wealth in the world has grown because of the efficient application of work and the added value of intellectual property, made possible by capitalism.

    Certainly, there are excesses to human greed, in which the powerful abuse their position to take even more. That is why there are laws to limit and regulate economic activity.

    Socialism on the other hand, sees wealth as a fixed quantity, to be seized and divided as the spoils of revolution. That is how, after seizing all privately owned wealth on the Island, the rulers of Cuban killed the ability to create new wealth. That is why Cuban wealth has decayed and crumbled like the rubble of hundreds of collapsed buildings in Centro Habana.

    The Revolution destroyed the wealth of the Cuban nation. The true miracle of capitalism is that it has lifted up out of poverty the largest end number of human beings in history.

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