Responses to ‘Bad Cuban medicine’

National Post
January 27, 2003

Re: Lawrence Solomon’s article, “Bad Cuban medicine,” published in the Jan. 18, 2003, issue of the National Post

Lawrence Solomon’s columns are a gross misrepresentation of facts with a very creative spin. Cuba is a developing country, undergoing severe economic constrains. It is not a country with rich natural resources and it has suffered for the past 44 years a relentless economic war carried out by the world’s most powerful nation.

It is no surprise for most observers that the standard of living of Cubans is below typical expectation in North America, and that the country faces uncommon challenges in its development objectives. Cuba is perhaps the only developing country that receives absolutely no financial loans from the World Bank or the IMF, that receives no preferential financing from any bilateral source whatsoever and that is forcefully exempted from accessing the most lucrative and dynamic market for the export of its goods and services.

Without pretending to answer every misrepresentation in the column, historical facts must be recalled. The Economic Commission for Latin America, UNESCO and the World Bank recorded in the 1950s their assessment of Cuba, and it was far from the heavenly picture that the article tries to portray. Cuba was a playground for foreign interests, with a backward economy and a corrupt and extremely unequal society, where crime, prostitution, gambling, drugs and racism coloured the landscape. Today that is certainly not the case.

The core message of the article seems to be in the last sentence, calling for the government to do “much, much less.” Such a call reflects more an ideological impulse than an informed understanding of Cuba and the region in which we live in. However, it does not explain the motivation behind the untruthful depiction of a country striving to do better for its people.

In Mr. Solomon’s Jan. 18 column, “Bad Cuban Medicine,” Mr. Hiroshi Nakajima, director-general of the World Health Organization, said in May, 1998, that “Cuba’s national health system, with its emphasis on primary health care managed by a “health team” is widely considered to be exemplary. Few developing countries have adopted such a comprehensive range of health policies, geared to priority needs and the capacity of health workers to meet them, on behalf of all Cuban people, particularly the most vulnerable and impoverished.”

The following figures can give an idea of how wrong Mr. Solomon’s characterization is. The Panamerican Health Organization, the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the CIA World Fact Book 2002 have all published their assessments of health care conditions in Cuba and other countries of the world. Among the findings:

•   Child mortality/per thousand live births:
Cuba, 6.5; United States, 6.7; Mexico, 24.9; Argentina, 16.6; Brasil, 31. 8.
•   Life expectancy:
Cuba, 76.6 years; Russia, 67.3; Nicaragua, 68; Colombia, 70.7.
•   Medical doctors/10,000 inhabitants:
Cuba, 59; United States, 27. 9; Chile, 13; Colombia, 1.5.
•   Hospital beds/1,000 inhabitants:
Cuba, 6.3; United States, 4; El Salvador, 1.6; Guatemala, 1.
•   Proportion of under-five registered deaths due to intestinal infectious diseases:
Cuba, 2%; United States, 1%; Mexico, 6%.
•   Proportion of under-one population vaccinated against poliomyelitis:
Cuba, 100%; United States, 91%; Mexico, 89%.
Vladimir Mirabal, press attaché, Cuban embassy, Ottawa.

Like Lawrence Solomon, I too have been stopped in the street by people begging for money for medicine and have also experienced desperate fathers asking for help in getting their asthmatic child’s puffer refilled. I also recently talked to a “health tourist” from the United States taking advantage of hospital services.

These incidents all happened not in Cuba, but in Ottawa, a city where government officials and military get excellent treatment and the government confiscates any foreign currency we earn.

Cuban panhandlers seem to be as enterprising as ours. If their leaders are indeed as fit as Mr. Solomon has been led to believe, then at least they are ahead of our sorry looking lot.

Keith Richardson, Ottawa.

While Mr. Solomon raised some important questions, I found his article on the whole to be not only unbalanced but unfair.

His description of Cuba’s pre-1959 health system is untrue, and would more accurately describe the situation of the health system during the years of the Revolution.

There is no denying the shortages that the Cuban health system has suffered in recent years, but these have not altered the country’s priorities in terms of social spending. In fact, the percentage of GDP spent on the health sector has increased in recent years despite the country’s severe economic crisis.

Curiously absent from Mr. Solomon’s article is reference to the fact that the U.S. economic blockade of the island greatly hinders Cuba’s access to medicine.

Dr. Alexander Gray, Centre for Peace and Development Studies, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.

What Mr. Solomon should have reported is that the health of the Cuban population is not primarily determined by what its citizens can buy by way of care and medicine, but rather what is given free of charge to everyone in that society. Using every reasonable index of the key factors determining the real health of a nation – infant mortality rates, vaccination rates and life expectancy – Cuba clearly wins out over every other relatively poor country in the world.

Marvin Glass, Canadian Network on Cuba, Ottawa.

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