They live longer than almost anyone in Latin America. Far fewer babies die. Almost everyone has been vaccinated, and such scourges of the poor as parasites, TB, malaria, even HIV/AIDS are rare or non-existent. Anyone can see a doctor, at low cost, right in the neighborhood.
The Cuban health care system is producing a population that is as healthy as those of the world's wealthiest countries at a fraction of the cost. And now Cuba has begun exporting its system to under-served communities around the world -- including the United States.
The story of Cuba's health care ambitions is largely hidden from the people of the United States, where politics left over from the Cold War maintain an embargo on information and understanding. But it is increasingly well-known in the poorest communities of Latin America, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa where Cuban and Cuban-trained doctors are practicing. In the words of Dr. Paul Farmer, Cuba is showing that "you can introduce the notion of a right to health care and wipe out the diseases of poverty."
Health Care for All Cubans
Many elements of the health care system Cuba is exporting around the world are common-sense practices. Everyone has access to doctors, nurses, specialists, and medications. There is a doctor and nurse team in every neighborhood, although somewhat fewer now, with 29,000 medical professionals serving out of the country -- a fact that is causing some complaints. If someone doesn't like their neighborhood doctor, they can choose another one.
House calls are routine, in part because it's the responsibility of the doctor and nurse team to understand you and your health issues in the context of your family, home, and neighborhood. This is key to the system. By catching diseases and health hazards before they get big, the Cuban medical system can spend a little on prevention rather than a lot later on to cure diseases, stop outbreaks, or cope with long-term disabilities. When a health hazard like dengue fever or malaria is identified, there is a coordinated nationwide effort to eradicate it. Cubans no longer suffer from diphtheria, rubella, polio, or measles and they have the lowest AIDS rate in the Americas, and the highest rate of treatment and control of hypertension.
1,500 Cuban doctors volunteered to come to the Gulf Coast. They waited with packed bags and medical supplies, and a ship ready to provide backup support. Permission from the U.S. government never arrived.
Even more revolutionary than the right to health care for all is the idea that an investment in health -- or in clean water, adequate food or housing -- could be more powerful, more effective at building security than bombers and aircraft carriers.