Waiting in Line for Cuba’s Healthcare Services

By Pilar Montes

A family doctor's office. Photo: cubadebate.cu
A family doctor’s office. Photo: cubadebate.cu

HAVANA TIMES — Most visitors to the island marvel or are astonished at how often Cubans head down to the doctor’s office, polyclinic or hospital, even when they’re in good health.

What they don’t know is that this is the only way Cubans can get the prescriptions they need, renew their treatment plans or get doctors to write up prescriptions for dipyrone or aspirin, simple analgesics that can only be obtained at the pharmacy with a doctor’s note.

There are also a lot of hypochondriacs that accumulate all kinds of prescriptions “in case they need them.” Those who go to pharmacies to buy the medications they need now or could need in the future are therefore in the thousands, perhaps even the millions.

Clinics are also where people get referrals to see specialists at polyclinics, a dietary plan which increases their food rations, medical certificates for work or notes to get simple blood pressure and sugar checkups, as these lack the basic instruments needed to conduct these tests quickly.

Low-income elderly people often hope the doctor will diagnose them with a condition that will entitle them to a special dietary plan.

In one of the very rare articles dealing with the issue, a Granma journalist described the problems surrounding the long lines of people outside clinics thusly: “Some are caused by excessive red tape, others by lack of competition. What’s certain is that growing lines of people are a sign alerting us to the poor quality of a service and an evident lack of interest in trying to change or improve things.”

“We all know that those who work with the public must have an extra quota of patience and charisma. If the mentality of working less because of low salaries or lack of motivation at the workplace prevails, we will continue down the road of cutting corners and accumulating unresolved problems.”

Even if you’re the first in line, the disabled, pregnant women and those who have come for a post-op checkup are let in ahead of everyone else. Then, those in line are seen in order of arrival.

At these clinics and hospitals, where one can leave without a diagnosis because the needed tests cannot be conducted for any number of reasons, people hold long conversations, and loquacious patients can tell you about their current ailments, those of their kids and relatives and the illnesses they could suffer in the future.

Once these items of the agenda have been addressed, that person can turn to a neighbor and subject them to a third-degree not unlike those seen in cop shows. Once they have satisfied their curiosity, they will offer their verdict, favoring this or that diagnosis with the utmost certainty.

This way, the country’s economy is hit by the absence of these individuals from work, and the absentees will either feel reassured in their worries or anxieties or, on the contrary, fall deeper into their depression as a result of their conversation with the other patient.

Another source of frustration and stress is being told the clinic ran out of X-ray plaques or the machine is broken, or similar news about the ultrasound and echocardiograms. This entails coming back or calling several times in advance to find out whether these tests are being conducted.

I am not blaming the health system, lacking in medications or spare pieces for diagnostic instruments because of the US blockade, but the indolence of technicians and professionals in view of the patient’s problems and pains is truly bothersome. These professionals could well inform the clinics near the patients’ homes of these issues to spare them long trips and lines.


Pharmacy in Havana.

The despair experienced by people standing in line to buy medications at a pharmacy is a common sight. The number of people waiting to buy their medication seems to grow and grow, despite the fact there’s no shortage of pharmacists behind the counter.

An hour goes by and one is still standing there, waiting. Some fall prey to anxiety when they hear a gentleman say one of the saddest things about this whole issue: “We’ve grown used to standing in line and they’ve grown used to making us wait.”

Speaking of pharmacies, I try to buy my medication on Sundays, when there are less people and only one clerk. Chronic patients and people with diabetes, hypertension, allergies, asthma, circulatory and other conditions buy their medication using a card commonly referred to as “the big card”, a document meant to resist all weathers and the wear and tear caused by their constant use.

At these lines of people, made up mostly of the elderly, there is no shortage of medical and pharmaceutical experts (who studied neither discipline). Anyone there can suggest or warn of a specific treatment prescribed by the doctor.

These “self-taught experts” recommend all manner of herbs and roots and even the benefits of occult science, seers and prophets, who tell us who cast the evil eye on us or want to distance us from our loved ones. There’s also those who tell us a relative or acquaintance died of the same condition one has under the treatment prescribed to us.

The next post on this subject of lines will address the situation of urban and inter-provincial transportation and the different lines of people that surround them for travel by land, sea or up in the air.

See Part 1 of this series on lines in Cuba.



17 thoughts on “Waiting in Line for Cuba’s Healthcare Services

  • “…just imagine a world renown surgeon leaving Cuba…” And yet they do. They would rather drive a cab in New York or Miami that stay in Cuba. It’s not about the best use of their talent, it’s about the exercise of their free will. How they use their talents is their business. And of course what does it say about Cuba when the very best seek to flee in search of a better life.

  • Scriptures aside for the moment. You wrote that “they are forced to stay.” Are you serious? Do you really believe that Cubans are allowed to think for themselves?

  • Certain goods would be available at a lower cost if Cuba could purchase them from the US. Now, feel better. But, for example, Mexico, a long time Cuba ally, is on 60 miles farther away, so that argument is not as substantial as you suggest. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the embargo has had NO effect. I do believe that the centralized Castro economy is the greater stumbling block to economic progress in Cuba. US foreign policy is not done by cookie-cutter method. What works for the Middle East is not relevant to our approach to Latin America, and especially Cuba. Because of God’s blessing, I am able to do both, focus inwardly AND support freedom and democracy in Cuba.

  • Medicine is exempted under the embargo. Check it for yourself. The CIA has been directly involved in assassination attempts and other acts intended to destabilize the Castro dictatorship. But none of these acts could be called “atrocities”. However, if you can name an proven atrocity directly committed by the CIA, I am all ears (well, eyes).

  • Moses, I said earlier that I deem you to be a man of principle and men of principle speak truth regardless of whom it hurts. You, like the rest of us know that medicines were banned from being sold to Cuba. Stand up like a principled man and admit that your country committed some atrocities against Cuba. I do not want to name them out, but, if you persist in telling lies, I will have to name them.

  • But brother Moses, Cuba is just 90 miles away from America. Would the goods be cheaper buying from America which is just next door than to go half way around the world to purchase the same commodity? Are you forgetting Moses that any commodity which contains a certain percentage of American items in them were also banned from being sold to Cuba? You must always speak the truth my friend. There was an International student Competition. A Cuban student participated. All the other students received a camera as their prize but not the Cuban student because the major components in the camers were manufactured by an American company. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free Moses.” If a ship transported goods to Cuba, that ship could not visit an American port under six months. It was not that Cuba was broke, it was the restrictions imposed upon it by the International bully called America which wanted to bring the Revolution to its knees. These actions were against the United Nations Charter. Read the Charter my brother and re-engage me in debate. Rulers in Saudi Arabia do not permit women to drive cars, they do not hold elections there; but no criticism of them. There are no elections held in all of the oil bearing Middle East Countries, but America is mum on them. Do you see the hypocrisy Moses? Why the attack on the Castros and Cuba? First take the beam out of your own eyes, before you can see clearly to take the speck of dust {MOTE} out of somebody else’s eye Moses!!! America is not perfect and so is Cuba which is experimenting with a new version of development which would benfit all and sundry. Give Cuba a chance and try your utmost to correct a lot of the evils which still exist in America after so many years of Independence. I deem you to be a man of principle for admitting that no country is perfect and that you would cease your biased attacks on Cuba and, instead, focus your attention inwardly and foster the necessary changes. God Bless!!

  • Moses, the Cuban people initiated the Cuban Revolution of 1959, They were third class citizens in their own land. The American Mafia owned Cuba, 70% of the Cuban population were illiterate. Today, Cuba has the highest literacy rating in the world? Tell me something, Moses, Can to teach a man to think for himself by educating him from kindergarten to University free of charge and then subjugate him? Tell me the truth!! Ignorant and uneducated people are kept in bondage. The reason why the Cubans risk their lives is because of the propaganda spewed out by the American press, but, on arrival in the land of the brave and the free, they become disillusioned and want to return home, but this would not be good propaganda for America, so they are forced to stay. Just imagine , a world renowned surgeon leaving Cuba to live in America ending up being a cab driver in order to survive. A total waste of talent. Not even to place him in the run down Government hospitals where he could continue to serve his fellowmen and women. You now know that America is not perfect, but, when you were criticizing the Castros and Cuba you forgot this passage of Scripture, “First take the beam out of your eyes before you can see to take the mote out of somebody’s eyes.” There is another saying, “Who is without sin, cast the first stone.” America became Independent 17774 or 1776? A developed country and is not perfect, but you are criticizing the Castros who took control in 1959. What a hypocrite you are Moses? But, thanks for the confession for it is always good for the soul. Read your Bible a little more my good friend.

  • I have a cousin in the u.s.a who just spent a week iin a hospital the bill was $129,000 dollars he is not paying cause he has no money ,the hospital cannot do jack shit to him.

  • i am Cuban ,where do u live mr.clarke,if you love cuba so much perhaps you should live here.i

  • Cuba is still known for being the brother for Canadians and Europeans. You learned the pamphlet very well but my dear it sounds Trasnochado.

  • This is a blog about Cuba. The US is far from perfect, but this is not the forum to assail US flaws. Moreover, whatever problems that exist in the US do not excuse the lack of basic human rights in Cuba. Indeed, Jesus Christ did admonish the mob “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone”. But Jesus was not a blogger. This is Havana Times. Defend the Castros if you choose, but don’t suggest that people who want freedom for the Cuban people have no right to criticize the Castro regime because we don’t live in a perfect country.

  • If you are suggesting that because China prefers the security of investing in low interest US Treasury bonds over many other available investment vehicles, I should recoil from telling the truth about the Castro economy, you are wasting your time. Even with the 10% restrictions imposed by the embargo, the international marketplace of goods and services available for purchase by the Castros remains huge. The only real excuse which explains why Cuba lacks so many basic goods is that they have no money to purchase these goods. Tell the truth, shame the devil.

  • MOses, America is just ninety miles away from Cuba and trades with Communist China which is hundreds of miles away from it. If the component of any equipment has American parts in it, it was banned from being sold to Cuba and, if any equipment had any material which came from Cuba, it was banned in America. The real aim of the embargo was to cripple Cuba. Was to bring the Revolution to its knees. Was to starve the Cuban people so that they could rise up against their own REVOLUTION. It was a dastardly synister plot. Moses speaks about Cuba being broke, what about America? Isnt it the Chinese buying of American bonds which has America performing a balancing act in its economy? Why are you so hypocritical Moses? Tell us the truth man. You read Stories to little children when they are being put to sleep..

  • Prior to the 1959 Revolution, Cubans walked from Santiago which is 9 hours away by vehicle from Havana to access medical attention. Today medical attention is available in every province. In America where medical attention is not accesible to the ordinary folks, people who attend the Government hospitals spend a whole day trying to access attention and you know that the treatment that they receive is inferior. The rich would live and the poor would die in America. Stop beating up on Cuba. Criticize the inadiquacies in America a developed country which is wracked with peolple living in the streets and searching the garbage bins for food to survive in the so-called richest country in the world. Why do you keep attacking Cuba all the time? You fail to tell your readers where you are stationed, to fail to educate your readers how it used to be under Batista and you fail to hail the success of the Cuban Revolution in liberating people to think for, you can never enslave, subjugate, oppress a person if you educate that person. In America, a proper education can only be accessed by persons of wealth. In Cuba, that same education is FREE. Give Jack his Jacket. If your media is to educate its readers, speak the truth man. Stop the brain washing. Supply us with facts. Not too long ago, you came out about the side walks of Cuba. Tell us about the slums in Harlem. Tell us about the ghettos in the cities of America; tell us about the homeless situation in America; tell us about the crime situation in Ameria; tell us about the discrimination in America; tell us about the Government spying on people in America. Cuba is a colony which was just liberated on 1st January, 1959. It is just finding its way. Prior to 1959, the island was known as the WHORE HOUSE or THE BROTHEL of the world and it was run by American gangsters. Tell us about young girls who were attending school and, on their way there they were abducted and forced to work in brothels and nothing could be done for them, because the long arm of the LAW became extremely short for the rich and the famous. Give us the whole story man; you are short changing us!!.

  • Exactly, reread this sentence. She alleges that the Cuban health system lacks medication et. al. because of the US embargo. Not true. It lacks the necessary supplies because Cuba is broke and can’t afford to buy all that they need from other countries. Cuba is broke because they don’t produce or grow enough stuff to sell abroad to meet their needs. Period.

  • I believe that Pilar Montes, the author said: “I am not blaming the health system, lacking in medications or spare pieces
    for diagnostic instruments because of the US blockade, but….”

  • Cubans have been lied to so long, they seem to no longer even look for the truth. There is no reason that the lack of x-ray plaques should be blamed on the US embargo. Cuba can buy x-ray plaques from China, Mexico, Brazil or whomever. Cuba can buy all the medicine they need from the US as medicines are exempt from the embargo.

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