It Never Would Have Happened in Cuba

Yusimi Rodríguez

Blood Bank in Havana. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, June 23 – If I hadn’t seen the US film John Q on Cuban television yesterday, perhaps I’d be writing something quite different today on the system of health care here on our island.

The movie’s storyline is that the nine or ten-year-old son of John (played by Denzel Washington), collapses while playing baseball and, after a series of tests, it’s discovered he has an enlarged heart and will need a transplant, otherwise the boy will only have months or weeks left to live, perhaps only days.

The good news is that his blood type is B positive, what quickly raises his name up on the list of patients awaiting donations.  The bad news is that simply to be included on that list his parents will have to pay $75,000, not counting the cost for the care that the boy is receiving in the hospital in the meantime.  The operation itself, if he’s lucky enough that an organ appears on time, will cost a minimum of $250,000 dollars.

The boy’s two parents are employed, so John (Denzel Washington) is convinced that the insurance he had paid for years will cover the costs of the operation their son’s needs.  Soon the hospital administration points out his error: the boy’s condition is not covered.

The couple sells everything that’s marketable, and friends try to contribute with what they can, but it’s not nearly enough.  On top of all this, the boy is going to be released from the hospital, not because he’s improved at all, but because the medical services he had been receiving were not paid.  Faced with his son’s virtual death sentence, John takes drastic measures: he decides to kidnap the surgeon, close off a floor of the hospital and take hostages so that his son is included on that famous list.

Starting from there, this is more or less what I have seen before with this type of plot, where somebody takes hostages to demand something, the hostages go from fear to solidarity with their kidnapper, and the viewers are moved to tears by the story.

And, as always, there’s the element of the curious public who remain outside the hospital trying not to miss anything in “the cause of the moment,” as the situation is described by one of the characters in the movie. Nor is there a lack of the standard political interests, concern for public opinion in the face of elections or journalists trying to squeeze out the maximum juice from the story.

Cuban Kids have their medical attention guaranteed at birth. Photo: Caridad

In fact, it doesn’t matter how the story ends.  There’s something that’s clear after the first half hour of the movie: It is an open and direct criticism of the healthcare system in the United States of America, the most powerful country in the world, where 40 million people live without medical insurance.

If the objective of showing this film on Cuban television was to make Cuban citizens reflect —especially those who dare to criticize the domestic political system and their government about the achievements of the Revolution in the field of public health that is within reach of all our people— then the film achieved that goal. Even before the first half hour of the movie, the first phrase that crossed my mind was, “That wouldn’t have happened here.”

I don’t mean that there wouldn’t have been the risk of the child losing his life on the operating table, procedures of that type are always risky.  Nor am I implying that here there would have been a bunch of compatible hearts waiting for him.  His parents would have had a ton of reasons to be concerned, but if they were in Cuba they wouldn’t have had to sell all their worldly possessions so that their son was included on a list, nor would they have had to think about the expenses of being admitted into the hospital, and less still about the cost of the operation.

Here, medical care is guaranteed for everyone who works, who doesn’t work or who never will work.

Does that mean that Cuba’s health care system is perfect?

No.  Often you go to your neighborhood clinic and there’s no one there to attend to you, or there’s no film to take an x-ray, or in the pharmacy there’s none of the medicine you need.  It’s become common practice for people to bring the doctor some type of gift to guarantee that they’ll be well attended, or so they don’t have to get in the tortuous lines when they go in for a consultation.  People are convinced that they can’t go there with their hands empty, because the doctors also have to live.

Everybody knows that the salaries of doctors are insufficient, and that the majority of them have to chase behind buses the same as anyone of us.  People know that physicians often don’t have the resources to work, that on occasions they go directly from their night shift duty to their regular consultations, that many want to go on medical missions abroad in order generate the income to build a house or to bring back a computer, or things to sell, that many have to extra work outside of their profession to make a living.

Likewise, many of them have abandoned their professions in order to make a living.  We can’t criticize them. We can only give our thanks to those who remain in the field of medicine and carry out their work with the greatest of dedication, with no other interest than that of saving lives, and who suffer when they don’t achieve that.

Despite all this, which would have been the central idea of my comment just a couple days ago,  I can’t avoid continuing to think about the situation of the characters in the movie, and —to repeat to myself— that wouldn’t have happened here.

Someone could argue that our health care isn’t really free, because the money the State uses in health and education is what it takes from our pay checks on the job, with the result being our so very low wages.

Here, medical care is guaranteed for everyone who works, who doesn’t work or who never will work. Photo: Caridad

It’s possible, but like I said before, that right here is guaranteed even for those who have never worked.  Yes, it’s complicated; nothing is black and white.  There might exist people who are much better informed and who could possibly provide data on measures taken to “influence” the statistics on the public health care system in our country, or they might have information about medicines that are in short supply here but are exported to other countries.

I cannot substantiate anything concerning that.  In this instance, I can only guide myself based on what our official national press says, but also from my own experience as a person suffering from asthma since I was a child, from the medical problems of friends and family members with afflictions that are even more serious than mine, and from anyone who has at any time needed medical care.

The movie could have been set in many countries

Most countries in the world could have been used as the location for the movie John Q.  In many countries, people die from simple illnesses for lack of diagnosis.  That’s not the case of Cuba.

What I’m asking is whether the fact of having free health care and education a strong enough argument to stop us from criticizing what we consider worthy of criticism, to stop us from demanding changes, to stop us from standing up for any right that is denied us?

No.  Medical care is one right that should be guaranteed all human beings on the planet, independently of their social condition, economic situation or their political or religious affiliation.  We cannot view free health care as a favor or charity.  If we have to pay for it with our silence, conformism or sell-out attitudes, then it’s not free.

In the United States, 40 million people still lack medical insurance.  This is a pending task for President Barack Obama and for all the citizens of that country, who should fight for that right.  We have already achieved it.  Free health care in Cuba is a right.  Now we must conquer others.

13 thoughts on “It Never Would Have Happened in Cuba

  • July 5, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Interesting argument about Capitalism, and how wonderful it is to have all the profits you earn in your own pocket. And Health Care of course can always improve under Capitalism because the profit motive will create the self-interest to improve it. Sorry folks, Capitalism doesn’t work that way.

    The profit motive simply gives greedy people an opportunity to take advantage of the less greedy, or less healthy, or less educated. I won’t even bring up race and Class which muddy the waters even further. Instead, I’ll give you a few examples of how the system works for those of us who are not at the top of the heap.

    Our ‘Democratically’ elected Legislature passes a bill, and funds, a Medical Residency Program. The ‘Democratically’ elected Governor – from the minority Party – decides the money may be wasted, and refuses to spend it. The Residency Program never gets started. This same Governor decides a Long-Term care facility for Veterans is too expensive. She unilaterally cuts the size of the facility in half, and ‘Privatizes’ the work-force. Other Public Institutions have Union employees working for a living wage. The new facility has non-union workers many of whom are paid minimum wage [they are ‘unskilled’] and receive no benefits that are not mandated by law.

    The Administrators of these projects receive big salaries so they can be ‘competitive’ with private industry. Who knows, maybe BP will lure them away if they just earn a good living…

    Cuba offers Medical Scholarships to US Citizens. I have written to Newspapers and Politicians and Educators about them. So far, even though we suffer from a terrible shortage of Doctors, going to a Communist country for an education is a no-no.

    The primary similarity I see between Cuba and the US is the appalling ignorance one people has of the other. In that, they seem to have true equality!

  • June 27, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    ‘Castro brothers personal farm’

    Oh my… this is Fox News quality material! 😉

  • June 25, 2010 at 2:54 am

    Let me just be more clear Greg, Cuba is not socialist or communist

    The system in Cuba just seem to be the Castro brothers personal farm.

  • June 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm

    Greg I think you are misunderstanding my statement
    When I say before the system in place now is State monopoly capitalism
    I was referring to Cuba’s system.

    This is a question that always intrigue me. What is the real economical system of Cuba now?

    The two that come closest to it are
    Slavery and State monopoly capitalism

    Let me explain myself

    People are pay very little as you know therefore they are working almost for free, what they get is not even sufficient for them to buy food to eat! and they get this “free health” and “free education” but in the end they actually pay for it will the very very low wages they will earn for the rest of their life!
    They price to pay for the individuals is too high! Because they have to support all the lazy ones that do not want to study or work etc so there you have it.

    As for State monopoly capitalism
    Anything in Cuba has to be paid for. (Even the so call “free services” like education and health) where do you think that money comes from? The state does not create wealth. People’s work do!
    So with the state fixing prices and not allowing any competition and using the police and the customs service to control what people can import into the country or export. They have absolute control of everything.
    So then again there you have it.
    Cuba system is top down because of both explanations above. The top hierarchy set everything up so that they direct from their ivory tower the system to very bad effect on the people at the bottom of the pyramid.
    Those Cubans, those at the bottom are the ones for whom this system was build and they are worst of.
    Now they are even poorer than before the revolution, and they do not even have the freedom to express it!

    I do not understand how the international left can not see that the Cuban system is a really bad example. One that simply shows Stalinist socialism is bad for every one.

    I do not think socialism can be improve. You always end up with this kind of system were not everyone in society is included.

  • June 24, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Oh, and I’m not arguing that Cuba isn’t broken, no least of the reasons being the blockade and 50 yrs of imposed war… Broken by the bureaucracy and coordinator class that is too afraid to act lest they fall under some other bureaucrat ducking for cover. Only when there is a participatory process governed by the stake holders on the ground, one where decisions are not undermined by the party time and time again, will there not be incredible gaps throughout all of provisioning in Cuba.

    But you’ll never see me working with the immoral ignorance of capitalism. There is no debate, it is direct democracy within socialism or barbarism.

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