A Cuban Fairy Tale From PBS
What public television didn’t tell you about health care in Castro’s socialist state.
In his memoir covering four years in Cuba as a correspondent for Spanish Television, Vicente Botín tells about a Havana woman who was frustrated by the doctor shortage in the country. She hung a sheet on her balcony with the words “trade me to Venezuela.” When the police arrived she told them: “Look, compañeros, I’m as revolutionary as the next guy, but if you want to see a Cuban doctor, you have to go to Venezuela.”
That story was not in the three-part report by Ray Suarez on Cuban health care that aired on PBS’s “NewsHour” last week. Nor was the one about the Cuban whose notice of his glaucoma operation arrived in 2005, three years after he died and five years after he had requested it. Nor was there any coverage of the town Mr. Botín writes about close to the city of Holguín, that in 2006 had one doctor serving five clinics treating 600 families. In fact, it was hard to recognize the country that Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing.
The series was taped in Cuba with government “cooperation” so there is no surprise that it went heavy on the party line. Still, there was something disturbing about how Mr. Suarez allowed himself to be used by the police state, dutifully reciting its dubious claims as if he were reporting great advances in medical science.
Castro’s military dictatorship marks 52 years in power next week. But the “revolution” is dead. A new generation of angry, young Cubans now vents on Internet blogs and through music, mocking the old man and his ruthless little brother. On Nov. 29, in the city of Santa Clara, hundreds of students launched a spontaneous protest when they were denied access to a televised soccer match they had paid to watch. What began as a demand for refunds soon turned to shouts of “freedom,” “down with Fidel” and “down with socialism,” according to press reports.
Dissent is spreading in Cuba like dengue fever because daily life is so onerous. One of the best documented sources on this subject is the Botín narrative (“Los Funerales de Castro,” 2009, available in Spanish only), which pulls back the curtain on “the Potemkin village” that foreigners see on official visits to Cuba. Behind the façade is desperate want. Food, water, transportation, access to health care, electricity, soap and toilet paper are all hard to come by. Even housing is in short supply, with multiple families wedged into single-family homes. The government tries to keep the lid on through repression. But in private there are no limits to the derision of the brothers Castro.
Mr. Suarez’s report, by contrast, is like a state propaganda film. In one segment, an American woman named Gail Reed who lives in Cuba tells him that the government’s claim of its people’s longevity is due to a first-rate system of disease prevention. He then parrots the official line that Cuba’s wealth of doctors is the key ingredient. What is more, he says, these unselfish revolutionary “foot soldiers” go on house calls. “It’s aggressive preventive medicine,” Mr. Suarez explains. “Homes are investigated, water quality checked, electrical plugs checked.”
An abundance of doctors? Not in the Cuba Mr. Botín lived in. In 2006 the government claimed there were 65,000 doctors. That number, he says, was “a figure that many professionals considered inflated.” When Cubans complained they couldn’t get care, he notes that the state upped the number “magically” to 71,000 five months later. Given Fidel’s habit of making things up, it’s hard to know how many competent doctors the government has trained. But there is no disputing the fact that thousands of medics have been sent overseas in large numbers to earn hard currency for the regime. There is also no question that Cubans are paying the price at home.
As to doctors checking on water quality and electricity outlets, the PBS reporter might be surprised to learn that most Cuban homes have no running water or power on a regular basis. This is true even in the capital. In 2006, Mr. Botín says, a government minister admitted that 75.5% of the water pipes in Havana were “unusable” and “recognized that 60% of pumped water was lost before it made it to consumers.” To “fix” the problem, the city began providing water in each neighborhood only on certain days. Havana water is also notoriously contaminated. Foreigners drink only the bottled stuff, which Cubans can’t afford. In the rest of the country the quality and quantity of the water supply is even less reliable.
Mr. Suarez also reported that, according to Ms. Reed, Cuba is suffering an “embargo of medicine.” But there is no embargo on food or medicine. The problem is that the government lacks the money to pay for new medicines that are protected under patent.
Reporters who want access to Cuba know that they have to toe the Castro line. I get that. Mr. Suarez must figure that his American audience does not.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com