My mother was a New Deal Democrat. She grew up in the Depression and always revered Franklin D. Roosevelt for rebuilding the nation after its economic collapse. She stayed loyal to the Democratic Party throughout her life but she wasn’t what I would ever consider a liberal: as an Irish Catholic she held moderate to conservative views on a wide range of social issues. So I was always a bit confused and surprised when she told me that Fidel Castro was one of her heroes. Yes. Fidel Castro.The communist leader of Cuba.
I often reminded my mother of Castro’s suppression of free speech and political dissent and the nation’s horrendous human rights record. But she wouldn’t budge. To my mother, Fidel Castro delivered to his citizens something sacred. Something that truly mattered: Universal health care.
So I thought of my mother when I read a recent policy forum in Science entitled, 50 Years of U.S. Embargo: Cuba’s Health Consequences and Lessons. Authors Paul Drain, MD, and Michele Barry, MD, discussed what has happened to health care in Cuba since the first embargo was imposed in 1963.
The bottom line? Remarkably, in spite of Cuba’s ongoing economic turmoil, the loss of its steady financial support when the Soviet Union collapsed and the continued ratcheting-up of the economic screws by the U.S. throughout the years, Cuba has produced “better health care outcomes than most Latin American countries.” Cuba has the highest life expectancy and the lowest infant mortality rates in the region. The tiny island, economically isolated by the U.S. for nearly a half of century, has produced a primary care system that puts ours to shame. And Cuba has some of the highest vaccinations rates in the world.
I know its political heresy to laud Cuba for anything in many quarters of the political culture today. Yet, the paper concludes, “there may be valuable lessons to learn from Cuba” as the U.S. revamps its health-care system. Horrors, I know. Something to learn from Cuba! Outrageous!
In my latest 1:2:1 podcast I spoke to Stanford Hospital & Clinics medical resident Paul Drain. I think the paper and the podcast point out something that's totally overlooked in the U.S: Cuba has been able to carve out some excellence in health care amid a sea of financial despair.
Oh, and by the way, to my now deceased mom, Happy Mother’s Day!
Photo by Malias