Veronica Fernandez is a resident of Cuba today and she has something to say about her health care. I post this because I find that there is a romanticism with the idea everybody in Cuba gets equal health care. The truth is, Cuba has an enormous amount of genius doctors with good hearts. It is also a fact that there is an economic crisis which means supplies are scarce. On my own trips to Cuba, I have visited the hospitals in Havana (once on a vacation my brother had to get stitches after sliding into a baseball home base and instead sliding into some sneaker cleats…ouch). Off to the hospital we went. The doctors were angels… sewed and stitched him with a hospital bill of $60. We thought we were in heaven.
Then I returned years later to film East of Havana. We spent a good portion of our trip on Alamar, the ghetto projects located 30 minutes outside of Havana (Alamar is the Bronx equivalent if you will, compared to Havana’s Manhattan analogy). One of our friends, rapper Magyori needed medical assistance. What we encountered was a different world. Dirty towels, no q-tips, unsanitary products, etc. The doctors did the best they could and helped Magyori in the most efficient manner possible. It was a stressful afternoon. It was also quite a wake-up call for me and my team — a real lesson in the fact the tourists experience a different side to Cuba than some of the locals. Just remember, when you see movies like Michael Moore’s Sicko or Oliver Stone’s doc on Cuba, the hospitals you are seeing are pre-organized with the Cuban government. The hospitals are usually located in a central part of town, and are conscious of the fact cameras are coming to shoot, so the best face is put on always, and internal problems are best swept under the rug.
Alamar is a neighborhood adjacent to Cojimar, the ‘hood she grew up in and writes about. Our main character in East of Havana, Soandry, is from Cojimar — the neighborhood with a bay which Hemingway wrote about in theOld Man and the Sea. Here is how Veronica Fernandez describes herself: “I was born in the town of Regla, on the other side of Havana Bay. Over the years, many people from Regla have gone to live in Cojimar, fleeing the contamination from the petroleum refinery in Regla. That’s what my family did when I was just four years old.”
One day, Veronica had extreme pain in her molars, “I don’t consider myself a cowardly person,” she writes, “but in these types of cases everyone is fearful of the unknown.” She went to her dentist and discovered that the woman doctor she trusted her teeth to had left work to attend her dying father. Since she was the only daughter, she had to request an unpaid leave to be able to attend to her father where she describes: “I found her in a state of such desperation that I felt bad for having come at such an inopportune moment. Her father was in an advanced stage of dementia.”
“I finally sat down in the daunting dentist’s chair, and I can only say that no one could imagine what happened there. The anesthesia I was given did absolutely nothing. After going through that entire odyssey, the dentist explained to me that for more than a year they hadn’t been given the any types of supplies with which to work and that what they have is because they themselves negotiate with friends and other institutions that always contribute something to them.” The rest of the story is spoken in the words of Veronica who goes on to describe the conversation she had with her dentist that day.
“She told me more. She said that if she were to wait for them to give her the supplies she needed to care for the public, she’d never work. Therefore, what she does is buy the materials herself, but she has to charge. What she refuses to do is stand around doing nothing while seeing people coming to the clinic in need of care. She told me that dentists in general have to do their work wherever they are needed; therefore it’s unethical to sit around in their offices doing nothing because they haven’t been given the needed supplies. The whole group that works with her thinks the same, and it’s for that reason they’re able to treat patients.
While I was listening to what this dentist was telling me, several questions came to my mind: Is it possible for us to continue saying we’re a medical power? Are the senior officials within the Ministry of Public Health unaware of what is happening? How is it possible that the Cuban people cannot enjoy such a basic human health service? If we don’t have the resources necessary in the country to give the appropriate attention to our people, why do we prioritize other countries? If we don’t have indispensable dental materials for caring for the public, why do we continue graduating so many dentists every year?
In fact, this situation is shameful and terribly unfortunate because it discredits us in all aspects. We cannot suggest that our basic health care system is the best if it’s not undergirded by a solid material foundation. In our system, no medical doctor in Cuba should have to occupy themself with having to search for supplies to treat their patients.”
Read the first person account, go to Health Care in Cuba: More Questions than Answers at HavanaTimes.org