Battling against the odds - May Day Study tour report back

Campaign News | Thursday, 25 July 2013

Journalist Peter Lazenby was on a recent CSC May Day study tour to Cuba. He reports back for the Morning Star

Dr Ruben Garcia Lopez works at Vedado medical clinic in Havana in Cuba.

When I met him recently during a visit organised by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, he spoke with enthusiasm for, and pride in, the work done at his clinic, and of the achievements of the Cuban health service both at home and abroad.

As he talked he displayed a beaming smile, and was animated in his desire to tell foreign visitors about the country's health service achievements.

But when asked about the effects of the US blockade on his work, his mood, and the atmosphere, darkened.

The smile left his face and he showed signs of both anger and desperation.

"There are medications I need which I could buy 90 miles away," he said, referring to the United States where drug companies are keen to supply the Cuban health service, but are forbidden from doing so by the US government.

"Instead I have to get them from China."

Illustrating the enormity of the impact of the blockade, he said: "Three hours of the blockade is equivalent to one year's provision of X-ray services and all the equipment needed to provide them."

That's for the whole country.

It is accepted wisdom that despite the vicious blockade, Cuba's health service is the best of any country in the developing world.

It is also better than the health services of many countries in the world's richest and most developed nations.

Its efficiency and continuing advances in the face of deliberately inflicted shortages of medicines and equipment caused by the illegal US blockade stand in sharp contrast to what is happening to Britain's National Health Service, which is being dismantled and privatised by the Tories and their allies the treacherous Liberal Democrats.

Health treatment in Cuba is free and high-quality.

Life expectancy and infant mortality figures in the country are among the best in the world.

Cuba's health service is integrated with the country's education system and incorporates a degree of democratic and political management which are intertwined.

Cuba has more doctors per head of population than any other country in the world.

It has so many general practitioners that every neighbourhood has a "doctor's house" permanently staffed by a family doctor and a nurse.

Each doctor's house serves every resident of the community in which it is sited, usually around 500 people.

Every resident is registered with the practice, which has the medical records of each person.

There are 11,500 doctor's houses. That's the first level of care.

Anything the family doctor or nurse can't deal with is referred to the next level - the polyclinics.

It is tempting to compare polyclinics with what used to be known in Britain as cottage hospitals - small community medical centres.

It would be an unfair comparison. Polyclinics provide a far more comprehensive service.

They provide the first access to a range of specialist consultants and services, including gynaecological, maternity, paediatric and ophthalmic care.

Each polyclinic is part of Cuba's famed University of Medicine, with dozens of tomorrow's doctors, nurses and technicians being trained in the clinic's educational facilities.

There are 451 polyclinics. Added to that are hundreds of specialist units for maternity and elderly care, and for disabled people.

The final tier of treatment is provided by Cuba's 162 general hospitals.

Cuba has one consultant per 95 head of population.

There are other key aspects to Cuba's healthcare system - prevention, education, integration into the country's political and democratic system and finally internationalism.

Prevention and education practices are not only the most advanced in the developing world, they are also way ahead of many developed countries.

The Cuban health service's internationalism is a matter of record, with tens of thousands of Cuban doctors active in more than 60 countries, including many in Latin America and Africa.

Almost 30,000 Cuban medical personnel have been active in Venezuela alone.

Cuba also trains thousands of medical students from developing nations, particularly from Latin America and Africa.

One of the actions of the Cuban government after the 1958 revolution was to convert the country's naval military barracks into a university of medicine - in the spirit of turning swords into ploughshares.

It is there that overseas students start their training.

Their second year of training is spent seeing front-line medicine being practised in the polyclinics.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all is that the Cuban health service was developed and continues to advance during more than half a century of the illegal blockade imposed by the United States, a blockade opposed by 188 of the member states of the United Nations and supported by just three - the US, Israel and the tiny state of Palau, which depends on the United States for its economic survival.

The blockade affects every aspect of Cuban life. Food, computers, medicine, educational materials, fuel - the list is endless.

Back at the Vedado polyclinic in Havana, I asked Dr Garcia how international supporters of Cuba's revolution could help.

His answer was immediate.

"Join the Friends of Cuba," he said, referring to one of the many groups abroad working to have the blockade lifted.

The equivalent group to Friends of Cuba in Britain is the Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC). To join CSC email or call (020) 8800-0515

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