During a recent weekend, I spent some time with a visiting poet and author, Aurora Levins Morales. A native Puerto Rican, she spent quite a bit of time in Cuba as a child, but now calls the San Francisco Bay area her home. In 2017, Aurora suffered a stroke after several previous head injuries, and underwent rehabilitation in Cuba.
When Aurora described the care she received in Cuba, and the laws regarding care of people with disabilities, I almost cried! It was so superior to what we have in the USA. Health Advocates spend so much of our time trying to figure out how to get the best services for our clients, services that should be available to all. I decided I had to write about it. Naturally, the story is a bit more complex than the rosy view I imagined.
The Cuban Constitution guarantees protections for workers who have a disability, illness, or just due to advancing age. In the case of their death, those same protections apply to their family. The state protects “through social assistance, the elderly without resources or shelter, and any personnel unfit for work who lack family members in conditions to render assistance”. There are laws guaranteeing a safe workplace, medical care, subsidies, and retirement in case of temporary or permanent disability. The free medical care for all in Cuba is legendary.
Cuba has the best health care in any Latin American country. Their infant mortality rate is better than ours, and despite the negatives, they have a similar life expectancy to us in the US. The negatives cannot be ignored, however. There is crumbling infrastructure, poorly paid doctors, and the system is further stretched by doctors who are sent throughout Latin America, where they can make better pay, leaving those at home to work harder for less money.
And, despite the glowing Cuban Constitution, life for those with disabilities is not so good. Although the Cuban State guarantees the right to free education without discrimination, there is no educational policy nor laws designed to protect people with differing abilities.
According to official figures, approximately 3% of the Cuban population lives with some limitation that keeps them from participating in the labor market, and as a result, they cannot access the funds to confront the many obstacles they face in life.
Though we enjoy some benefits, persons with severe disabilities often feel neglected and marginalized when it comes to this issue. Our limitations also make it more difficult for us to find a solution to the problem.
Even more disturbing is the rise of medical tourism where foreigners see a completely different medical system than most Cubans do.
Cuba, despite its famed legions of highly trained doctors, is no health-care paradise. Most hospital facilities for Cubans have peeling paint, missing light bulbs, and electrical and water outages.
On the flip side, there are positive stories. This one is written by a doctor who went to medical school in Cuba. He is answering, from his point of view, the question “is the Cuban healthcare system really as great as people claim?
The Cuban healthcare system, borne out of its revolutionary socialist ideology, regards accessibility to healthcare as a fundamental right of its citizens. It focuses heavily on a preventative approach to medicine and offering the simplest check-up to the most complex surgery, free of charge. Dental care, medicines and even home visits from doctors are all covered by the system.
My conclusion is that Cuba is not nirvana when it comes to healthcare, and the situation for those with disabilities is not as great as you would think based on the constitution. So, while I am disappointed, there are some positive steps worth noting. I feel incredible pain and anger about the difficulties I have in getting even meager services for my clients. I can only imagine how they feel having to live it.
We still have so much work to do to make it the system we all want to live in. Do you know anyone who has experienced the medical system in Cuba? I’d love to hear more first hand stories.
Best of Health,
Sima Kahn, MD
Founder, Healthcare Advocacy Partners
Dr. Sima Kahn muses on being a healthcare advocate, the troubles with our healthcare system, and how to advocate for ourselves.