My academic program here in Cuba revolves around learning Spanish, exploring Cuban culture academically and as a participant, and pursuing an independent photojournalism project. I’ve chosen Cuban Health Care as the subject of my journalism project. Just a few days ago, I was interviewing a prominent Cuban actress and her words struck such a chord with me that I’d like to share them with you.
“I want to tell you a personal story. I am a cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in 1992; I had an operation, they did chemotherapy and gave me a medicine called tamoxicin. 1992 was in the Special Period, during which we had nothing. I don’t know why they call it the “Special Period”. “Special” usually means wonderful. But no, it was horrible. Horrible. You guys don’t know the meaning of “nothing”. Sometimes we ate just white rice with oil. And my husband, who is North American, never called his mother to tell her “Mom, we have no money, we don’t have shoes.” Never. He said, “I chose to live here and my problems are my own.” So in ’92 the food ration was minimal.
When they operated on me, all of my coworkers gave me their rationed fish, their rationed chicken- protein so that I could get better. This is worth it. This is worth so much more than money. And I got all of my medical care for free. When I was in the US I had a friend who had terrible cancer and the chemotherapy cost her so much she couldn’t pay for it. The tamoxicin was costing her $499 a month. I took it for ten years for free. I have never had to pay a cent. And now they have me on a drug that costs $800 a month and I couldn’t live without it. So of course there are things that are worth it. There are good things that are worth fighting for.
Nobody has to say “I’m going to die because I can’t pay.” How awful for someone to say “I won’t get treatment because I can’t pay.”And that the US, such a powerful country, doesn’t have a medical system that can take care of the health of its people, well that’s terrible, no?
I know that Cuba has a lot of problems. Tons. I never, ever said that Cuba is perfect. I’m not religious. I don’t believe in perfection. I believe that all human beings have to fight to make life better. This I believe in. And I believe that people are good. And you can’t convince me of the opposite.
I believe that Cuba has achieved a crucial social interaction. We help each other out- everyone. We share, we lend each other clothes. I don’t have much. But if someone needs something I’ll give them everything I have. We have learned in the way to be more human I believe. We know that we have to help everyone and not just ourselves. I think that his has helped Cuba a lot. This is the truth. We have learned that people are different for different reasons, not for racial reasons or religious or sexual. We are more than just that. And these are values that I hope we don’t lose to materialism, this is the spiritual material that we have to fight to maintain. These are so much more important than material values. And I understand material values. I love things, I love them. And I think it’s pretty important to have something to eat, too. But you have to fight more for those spiritual things- the things you believe in.”
Health care in Cuba is far from perfect. The whole country is so poor that they don’t always have money to buy the more expensive drugs, and tourists do get preferential treatment. At the end of the day, however, the structure of their health system says that they have figured out that the people – every last one of them – are the most valuable part of their society. Life in Cuba is imperfect, like life in the US is imperfect, but there are so many things worth fighting for. For example, lets all fight to build a society where “nobody has to say ‘I’m going to die because I can’t pay.’”