HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 21 — Some say that comparisons are evil, but I continue to believe them to be useful tools in journalism. They bring us closer to conceptualizing reality and offer us indispensable parameters for placing news in its context.
I just returned from El Salvador, where I spoke with numbers of people. Among them was a young doctor who now works for the Ministry of Public Health, though she had previously lived in Cuba for 11 years where she studied for her degree and in her specialty.
She spoke to me as if I were the only person who could understand her. “Sometimes I have a sense of hopelessness,” she told me, “It’s difficult to work under these conditions when you’re accustomed to hospitals in Cuba, where everything you need is within arm’s reach.”
I was surprised by her assessment, especially since even the official Cuban press criticizes the Public Health Ministry these days. I first imagined that she must have worked in some specialized clinic, but she explained that she had only practiced in provincial hospitals.
Two in a bed
I didn’t understand and raised my criticisms. She accepted them as true but told me that the conditions on the island still couldn’t be compared with those in El Salvador. “Here they lack equipment and doctors, and we often have to put two patients in the same bed.”
“The previous governments left the public health system in such a state of disaster that we don’t even have dialysis equipment. This means they wait to come to the hospital and by the time they get here they are in a critical state and we have to open them up and introduce a catheter,” she explained.
She became indignant when telling me: “Medicines are much more expensive here than in the United States; but when we try to buy it from Cuba or India, the private pharmaceutical labs launch campaigns against the government and tell people that generic medicines are cheap because they don’t work.”
“Gradually health centers are opening up in rural areas where before there was nothing. However I was in communities where the doctor would come through only once a month, so people had to carefully calculate what day to get sick,” she added.
“In that village I spoke with the teacher, a young woman who taught 26 children from first grade to the sixth. Every morning at dawn she would walk from her town for two hours uphill and later return in the late afternoon. Her income wasn’t enough to pay bus fare every day.”
Hunger as a friend
The number of children who don’t go to school is high, so the Ministry of Education began serving breakfasts in schools and the enrollment grew. This is one of those rare occasions in which hunger turns out to be a good friend.
They asked me about education in Cuba and I tried to give a balanced overview, pointing out both its positive and negative aspects, but it seemed like no one heard the negative. They were only surprised to learn that everyone goes to school and that the university is free.
A group of campesinos wanted to know how their Cuban counterparts lived. I explained to them that it’s one of the better paid sectors and that their number are growing because the State is distributing land for free (in usufruct).
They looked at each other but no one said anything; it wasn’t necessary – they didn’t believe I single word I’d said. Later they told me that some of them rent land by the year, but that they had to pay in advance. If the crop came out well then they would eat, and if not…“then may God helps us.”
Be careful where you go
All of them advised me not to go out on the street alone, though they repeated that “this neighborhood is very safe.” However I still didn’t understand why there were armed men with shotguns on each block and each house was surrounded by high walls with electrified barbed wire at the tops.
An upper middle class woman admitted to me that she dreamed of living in a country where she didn’t feel afraid when her children went outside and where her grandchildren could play in the park. But with the gangs, drug trafficking and crime, even with money she couldn’t lead a normal life in her country.
I remember that a few months ago a diplomat from Europe asked me what policies might move Cuba toward change. He thought I was kidding when I suggested that it apply to join the European Union.
But it wasn’t a joke. It was the same alternative offered to the former European socialist countries. The problem for the Cubans is that their option is not to become a Holland or a Luxemburg but an El Salvador or a Dominican Republic.
But for many Cuban youth, what’s happening in other countries of the region provides them no consolation or comfort. Some believe that the progress achieved by their grandparents has been sufficiently applauded and that what’s necessary is to go back to looking toward the future.
In this respect, a Salvadoran friend told me that a political system must validate itself in the eyes of its people through what it does day to day. As he put it, “If it needs to appeal to its achievements of the past, it’s because something isn’t working very well today.”
Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC World.