Bad Cuban healthcare system collapses amid COVID-19 epidemic

Bad Cuban healthcare system collapses amid COVID-19 epidemic
Cubans mass in their streets for "Libertad!" - bringing the U.S. flag to clarify what they're rallying for. Video via Twitter

Cuba’s communist government has arrested vast numbers of people since mass protests began on Sunday. The Daily Wire reports that “Cubans took to the street in rarely seen demonstrations to protest the impoverished conditions of the island” and “their lack of freedom,” while chanting “Liberty” and “Freedom” and waving an American flag. Protesters also decried “food and medicine shortages, price hikes and the government’s handling of Covid-19,” reports the BBC.

Cuba’s dismally-bad health system seems to be collapsing amid the coronavirus epidemic, even though Cuba, an island, was far less impacted by the epidemic than countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Peru.

Twitter user America valdes writes that the “healthcare system has crumbled and they are unequipped to contain the covid outbreak,” with people languishing in dirty hospitals. “For years now the Cuban health care system has been suffering due to a lack proper infrastructure, medicine, equipment, and personnel. The government simply doesn’t fund the healthcare system.”

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The Cuban healthcare system has been bad for years. A 2014 news report noted that “hospitals in the island’s capital are literally falling apart.” Sometimes, patients ”have to bring everything with them, because the hospital provides nothing. Pillows, sheets, medicine: everything.”

The longstanding badness of Cuba’s healthcare system debunks claims made by Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders in the past. As president, Obama lauded the “enormous achievements” in “health care” made by Cuba’s communist regime. Senator Sanders claimed that communist dictator Fidel Castro “gave” Cubans “health care.”

In reality, Cubans had health care before communists took over the country, and Cuba has made less progress in health care and life expectancy than most of Latin America in recent years, thanks to communism.

Before the communist takeover, Cubans lived longer than people in virtually all other Latin American nations. But that changed under the communist regime that took over in 1959. By 2012, Chileans and Costa Ricans lived slightly longer than Cubans. Back in 1960, Chileans had a life span seven years shorter than Cubans, and Costa Ricans lived more than two years less than Cubans on average. In 1960, Mexicans lived seven years shorter than Cubans; by 2012, the gap had shrunk to just two years.

(Today, people live almost as long in Cuba as more prosperous Chile and Costa Rica — if you accept the rosy official statistics put out by Cuba’s communist government, which many people do not. Cuba has been credibly accused of hiding infant deaths, and exaggerating the life spans of its citizens. If these accusations are true, Cubans die years sooner on average than Chileans or Costa Ricans).

As Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted, “As for health care and education, Cuba was already near the top of the heap before” the communist “revolution. Cuba’s low infant mortality rate is often lauded, but it already led the region on this key measure in 1953-1958, according to data collected by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuba specialist and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.” But in more recent years, “Cuban hospitals” were “ill-equipped,” and by 2004, Cuban pharmacies stocked “very little and antibiotics” were “available only on the black market.”

Under communism, Cuba has fallen behind in basic living conditions. As the progressive economist Brad DeLong pointed out:

[Before communism, Cuba] was a developed country. Cuba in 1957 had lower infant mortality than France, Belgium, West Germany, Israel, Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Cuba in 1957 had doctors and nurses: as many doctors and nurses per capita as the Netherlands, and more than Britain or Finland. Cuba in 1957 had as many vehicles per capita as Uruguay, Italy, or Portugal. Cuba in 1957 had 45 TVs per 1000 people — fifth highest in the world. …Today? Today the UN puts Cuba’s HDI [Human Development indicators] in the range of … Mexico.

As Michael Giere notes, Cuba was prosperous before Castro’s communists seized power:

A United Nations (UNESCO) report in 1957 noted that the Cuban economy included proportionally more workers who were unionized than in the U.S. The report also stated that average wages for an eight hour day were higher in Cuba than in ‘Belgium, Denmark, France, and Germany.’… PBS explained in a 2004 retrospective, that …

Havana [prior to Castro] was a glittering and dynamic city. Cuba ranked fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, second in per capita ownership of automobiles and telephones, first in the number of television sets per inhabitant. The literacy rate, 76%, was the fourth highest in Latin America. Cuba ranked 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita. Many private clinics and hospitals provided services for the poor. Cuba’s income distribution compared favorably with that of other Latin American societies. A thriving middle class held the promise of prosperity and social mobility.’

But after communist dictator Castro took over, the prosperity came to an end:

Castro’s destruction of Cuba cannot be over dramatized. He looted, murdered, and destroyed the nation from the ground up. Just one factoid explains it all; Cubans once enjoyed one of the highest consumption of proteins in the Americas, yet in 1962 Castro had to introduce ration cards (meat, 2 ounces daily), as food consumption per person crashed to levels not seen since the 1800s.

Hunger became so widespread that a visiting Swedish doctor, Hans Rosling, had to warn Cuba’s communist dictator in 1992 about widespread protein deficiency among Cubans. Dr. Rosling visited Cuba in 1992. Roughly 40,000 Cubans had been reported to have been experiencing “visual blurring and severe numbness in their legs.”Rosling traveled to the heart of the outbreak, in the western province of Pinar del Río. It turned out that those stricken with the disorder all suffered from protein deficiency, because the government was rationing meat.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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