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Re-examining the Cuban Health Care System: Towards a Qualitative Critique



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Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
To be published in Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-
July 2007
Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami
Re-examining the Cuban Health Care
System: Towards a Qualitative Critique
Katherine Hirschfeld
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
Based on such key statistical indicators as infant mortality, longevity, infectious disease
rates, and provision of health services, Cuba appears far superior to neighboring countries. The
vast majority of scholarly analyses of Cuba’s health care system have been positive, and the
Cuban government continues to respond to international criticism of its human rights record by
citing this praise for its achievements in health and medicine (Chomsky, 2000; Limonta and
Padrón, 1991; Weiner, 1998). In fact, some scholars continue to argue that despite the
debilitating economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s health
system remains superior to neighboring countries such as the Dominican Republic (Acosta,
1997; Chomsky, 2000; Whiteford, 2000; Whiteford and Martinez, 2001).
My own research, however, suggests that the unequivocally positive descriptions of the
Cuban health care system in the social science literature are somewhat misleading. In the late
1990s, I conducted over nine months of qualitative ethnographic and archival research in Cuba.
During that time I shadowed physicians in family health clinics, conducted formal and informal
interviews with a number of health professionals, lived in local communities, and sought to
participate in everyday life as much as possible. Throughout the course of this research, I found a
number of discrepancies between the way the Cuban health care system has been described in
the scholarly literature, and the way it appears to be described and experienced by Cubans
themselves. This paper will provide a brief overview of several of these issues, with the goal of
offering a more balanced and ethnographically informed portrait of the Cuban health care
system. A final section will discuss these issues in the context of the assumptions social
scientists have historically made regarding the nature of health and health systems in socialist
The Formation of a Critical Perspective: A Short Fieldwork Vignette
Conducting qualitative ethnographic research in Cuba is not easy. North American
anthropologists have historically been viewed with suspicion by the Cuban government, and in
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some cases research permission has been revoked for individuals who took a critical perspective
or inadvertently broached the issue of political dissent (Lewis, 1977; Rosendahl, 1997). In my
own case, the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of Cuba in the medical anthropology and public
health literature meant that I arrived on the island with very favorable expectations. I never
anticipated my research would evolve into a critique.
After just a few months of research, however, it became increasingly obvious that many
Cubans did not appear to have a very positive view of the health care system themselves. A
number of people complained to me informally that their doctors were unhelpful, that the best
clinics and hospitals only served political elites and that scarce medical supplies were often
stolen from hospitals and sold on the black market. Further criticisms were leveled at the
politicization of medical care, the unreliability of health data and the overall atmosphere of
secrecy surrounding the prevalence of certain infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis.
Anecdotes of medical malpractice and bureaucratic mismanagement seemed common. The
Cuban health care system, as described by Cubans in informal speech, seemed quite different
from the Cuban health care system as described by North American social scientists and public
health researchers. This is not to say that Cubans had nothing positive to say about their health
care system, only that negative personal experiences also seemed common. Intrigued by this
discrepancy between the academic literature and my fieldwork observations, I began informally
collecting information on patient dissatisfaction and complaints.
Doing Critical Research
Unfortunately, research exploring negative aspects of the Cuban health care system
cannot be undertaken with methodological rigor. Public criticism of the government is a crime
in Cuba, and penalties are severe. Formally eliciting critical narratives about health care would
be viewed as a criminal act both for me as a researcher, and for people who spoke openly with
me. As a result it can be very difficult for foreign researchers or other outsiders to perceive
popular dissatisfaction, and few Cubans are willing to discuss dynamics of power and social
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control in a forthright manner. Conversations on these topics can be quite cryptic, and meanings
are deliberately obscured.
Eliciting critical narratives regarding the health care system therefore necessitated
informal research methods, and much of the information I gathered on these topics is fragmented
and anecdotal. This should not be taken to mean that the data are insignificant. To the contrary,
it is worth pointing out that a number of the conclusions social scientists have previously made
about Cuba and the Cuban health care system have not been based on any ethnographic or
qualitative research. When social scientists interested in health care have gone to Cuba, their
research appears to have been of short duration and most likely mediated through the use of
government-provided translators or guides (3). As Paul Hollander has pointed out, short term
“hosted” visits to socialist countries have historically resulted in painfully inaccurate
assumptions about the nature of life in these societies (Hollander, 1998).
In order to obtain more reliable information about negative experiences in the health care
system, I abandoned my formal research agenda and my role as a researcher and instead strove to
learn from an insider perspective by taking on a “membership role” (Adler and Adler, 1987). As
a number of anthropologists and sociologists have demonstrated, research on politically sensitive
topics necessarily limits one’s methodology. The data gained from informal participation in
sensitive areas, on the other hand, while not as analytically rigorous, can provide a wealth of
insight that more distanced or objective methods may not (Ferrell, 1998).
In my case, abandoning a formal researcher role and taking on a membership role meant
that I spent more time in my social role as visiting student and adopted daughter in a Cuban
household than I did in my formal role as scholarly researcher. In this context I became much
more aware of peoples’ expressions of dissent and dissatisfaction as well as the local idiom for
discussing politically sensitive topics. Instead of formal interviews, I carried on ordinary
conversations with people in the course of everyday events such as waiting in food lines and
social visits. I was carefully never to ask politically sensitive questions, but simply listened to
people and gently probed for more information when they volunteered this information
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themselves. Much to my surprise, people seemed quite willing to discuss these kinds of issues
off the record.
These experiences led me to conclude that any foreign researcher who did not strive to
take on a membership role could easily draw a number of erroneous conclusions even from
ostensibly confidential interviews in Cuba. People simply would not voice negative opinions in
the context of researcher-interviewee interactions. Questionnaire data would be similarly
unreliable. In fact, most Cubans I spoke with informally seemed to view questionnaires as tools
to elicit popular reiteration of the party line. As one friend stated, "We know we're supposed to
be moving toward democratic reforms and be able to speak out, to criticize. But people are still
scared. Any kind of survey or opinion poll makes them afraid. No one will say what they really
My increased awareness of Cuba’s criminalization of dissent raised a very provocative
question: to what extent is the favorable international image of the Cuban health care system
maintained by the state’s practice of suppressing dissent and covertly intimidating or
imprisoning would-be critics? Obviously it is not possible to empirically answer such a
question. It is, however, important that the question be asked, if only rhetorically. Previous
research in anthropology and public health theorizing the nature of socialist health systems has
not typically addressed issues of authoritarianism, dissent or social control in socialist countries
(1). The possibility that favorable health indicators may be produced by very different means in
Cuba than in other countries--means that individual doctors and patients experience negatively--
has not been examined.
The main goal of this paper will be to correct this imbalance by exploring (and implicitly
validating) two key areas of criticism Cubans commonly make of their health care system in
informal speech: 1) material shortages and inefficiency; and 2) authoritarianism and the
criminalization of dissent. Ultimately I will argue that Cuba (like the former Soviet Union)
could be more usefully thought of as an “ideocratic” state, where political power is used to
support and defend Marxist ideology. As retrospective studies of the Soviet health system have
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
shown, this unique configuration of ideology and power can produce very favorable health
statistics, but can also lead to subjectively negative experiences for individual doctors and
Material Shortages and Inefficiency
One of the most readily apparent problems with the health care system in Cuba is the
severe shortage of medicines, equipment, and other supplies. This problem is by no means
limited to the health sector. Cubans often have tremendous difficulty obtaining basic consumer
goods and other necessities, including food. In the official Cuban media and in much of the
social science and public health literature in the United States, these shortages are described as
resulting from the U.S. trade embargo (Barry, 2000; Garfield and Santana, 1997; Garfield and
Holtz, 2000; Nayeri, 1995; Simons, 1996). This assertion is not entirely incorrect--the U.S. trade
embargo certainly exacerbates material shortages on the island.
When speaking informally, however, many Cubans state that their government
deliberately maintains economic policies that create material shortages that exacerbate the effects
of the embargo. There is some logic to these statements. A number of Cuba’s economic
privatization efforts do not appear to have been designed to alleviate material shortages for the
Cuban populace, but to increase hard currency earnings for the Cuban government (for a
complete overview of this argument, see Crabb, 2001). As one friend jokingly described,
What we have here is a mixed economy. People call it ‘socio-cap.’ It’s not socialism,
and it’s not capitalism. Instead it’s the worst of both. There is inequality and poverty [of
capitalism]. And also long lines [for food and other goods] and inefficiency [of
socialism]. We still have nothing to eat. (4)
A number of key sectors of the economy (such as health) remain governed by centralized
planning, which inevitably leads to chronic material shortages and inefficiency. In a centralized
economy, forces of supply and demand are inevitably out of balance, leading to overproduction
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
of some goods and underproduction of others. As a result of these shortages and inefficiencies in
the formal, planned economy, black markets (or informal economies) emerge as an alternate
source of goods and services (Eckstein, 1994; Perez-Lopez, 1995; Verdery, 1996). These kinds
of illicit economic activities undermine the effectiveness of centralized planning and exacerbate
the inherent inefficiencies of the system. Furthermore, the formal economy could not function
without this parallel black market, given that planners simply could not insure the necessary
supplies of raw materials.
This pattern is quite apparent in Cuba. One study, for instance, has estimated that the
average Cuban household spends between fifty and seventy percent of its income on black
market goods (Eckstein, 1993:142). During my field research I observed an overwhelming
popular reliance on the black market or informal economy to satisfy basic consumer needs,
including health needs. Nearly everyone I knew was to some extent dependent on goods and
services procured via informal reciprocity networks of friends and relatives (usually referred to
as “socios”). The popular term for this practice is “sociolismo,” a term Cubans jokingly use to
describe the lived reality of their socialist system.
A Cuban friend, alternately amused and exasperated at my naivety regarding these
issues, described the relationship between the formal and informal economies to me rather more
bluntly as follows,
It works like this. If my brother is well-connected politically, he can get a good job in a
tourist hotel. Not only does he get to earn some American dollars, he also gets access to
the hotel’s storeroom [which represents a supply of desirable consumer goods that are
unavailable to most Cubans]. One day he may walk away [steal] with some towels for
his neighbor, who has none. Say the neighbor works in a factory bottling beer. To repay
his socio he’ll smuggle a case of beer out of the factory and give it to the hotel employee.
The hotel employee will then trade the beer to the maid for a supply of soap, which he’ll
either give to his socios or sell on the black market. Everybody does it. It’s the only way
to survive.
In my experience, the health sector often appears to be characterized by these kinds of
informal exchange networks. In one of my study communities, for instance, no one used the
formal health sector at all for commonplace medical complaints (colds, flu, muscle strains,
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
arthritis) for the duration of my fieldwork. Instead, socios were tapped for medical
consultations, surgical supplies, dental equipment, pharmaceuticals (often sent by relatives from
Miami) and folk advice, while the local family doctor clinics were often bereft of both patients
and supplies. Two short case studies illustrate these dynamics.
Case 1: Pepe's Tooth (as told by Pepe)
When one of my wisdom teeth started coming in it hurt terribly so I made an appointment
with a friend of mine who's a really good dentist to take it out. Well, when we first tried
to schedule it there weren't enough materials available, so we had to put it off for a while,
until he could hoard back enough stuff [surgical materials]. First there weren't any
needles. Then no sterile water, then no surgical thread. About three or four months went
by before we could actually do the surgery. He had gradually stashed things away as he
found them, and then, since he was a friend of mine, he had me come in on a Saturday
when the clinic was closed to do it.
Case 2: Sylvia’s Tooth (as told by Sylvia)
They [the dentist] tried to give me acupuncture instead of anesthesia when I had a tooth
pulled. These two nurses poked needles in my head, but I don't think they really knew
what they were doing...As soon as the dentist started to work on my tooth I let out these
screams, screamed like crazy, and they still stood there talking... Luckily a nurse friend of
mine was working in the next room and she came and gave me a shot [of Novocain].
'Here' she said, as she pulled the syringe out of her pocket, 'I saved this back for you.'
Thank God she showed up.
These two cases illustrate the necessity of having strong social networks in Cuba.
Without socios to procure supplies even routine medical or dental procedures can be difficult or
impossible to endure. Furthermore, this form of theft is commonly accepted and carries no
moral stigma.
Unfortunately, these practices serve to bankrupt the formal economy, leaving it almost an
empty shell, while much of the actual business of medicine (diagnosis, treatment, and obtaining
pharmaceuticals) is conducted through personal networks of socios using pilfered medical
supplies. A number of reports from the former Soviet Union illustrate a similar pattern
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(Feshbach and Friendly, 1992; Ledeneva, 1998; Knaus, 1981). As Ledeneva (1998:29) has
Getting into a good hospital, a hospital already filled to capacity, or the hospital with the
right specialization for one's illness still required blat [the Soviet equivalent of
sociolismo]. Surgical operations at the best medical centres were, and still are, organized
by blat: 'When I had this problem my friend arranged that I be hospitalized in the
regional clinic where he worked and not in the city hospital to which I was affiliated.'
To arrange an appointment with a well known doctor also implied a personal contact or
acquaintance. Doctors were important people with whom to cultivate relationships
because, in addition to providing access to hospital beds, blat with the doctor could
sometimes make the difference between whether he or she listened seriously to the
patient and gave a good diagnosis during a visit or only dealt with the matter
In such a situation, it is easy for the Cuban government to point to the empty shell of the
formal health sector as evidence of the negative impact of the U.S. embargo. Again this is not to
say that the embargo has no health costs, only that a true assessment of the costs of the embargo
cannot be reckoned without also measuring the medical goods and services circulating in the
informal economy. Unfortunately, economic transactions in the informal economy are difficult
to assess, and the Cuban government is not likely to encourage such lines of inquiry.
The Politicization of Health and Health Care
Many Cubans (including a number of health professionals) also had serious complaints
about the intrusion of politics into medical treatment and health care decision-making. There is
no right to privacy in the physician-patient relationship in Cuba, no patients’ right of informed
consent, no right to refuse treatment, and no right to protest or sue for malpractice. As a result,
medical care in Cuba has the potential to be intensely dehumanizing.
To elaborate, these values (privacy, autonomy and individualism) form the cornerstone of
medical ethics as understood in most Western health systems (Brock, 1987). Privacy and
autonomy underlie the practice of informed consent, as well as other legal codes that ostensibly
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protect patients from potential abuses (unwanted treatment, inappropriate treatment or untested
experimental treatment) of modern medicine. Legislation giving patients these rights was
enacted in the United States as a deliberate response to the perceived excesses and ethical lapses
of medicine in the 1940s and 1950s.
A number of scholars have argued that the notion of privacy, or an autonomous realm of
personal thought and behavior, is even key to the Western conceptions of selfhood and identity
(Bryant, 1978; Goffman, 1960; Ingham, 1978; Lifton, 1961; Shweder and Bourne, 1984; Young,
1978). As Shweder and Bourne have stated,
We find it tempting to argue that Western individualism has its origins in the institution
of privacy--that privacy promotes a passion or need for autonomy, which, for the sake of
our sense of personal integrity, requires privacy (p. 194).
In Cuba, however, values such as privacy and individualism are rejected by the socialist
regime as “bourgeois values” contrary to the collective ethos of socialism. Given these
dynamics it is not surprising that several noted Cuban dissidents, as well as North American
psychiatrists interested in the psychological dimensions of socialism have described the
subjective aspects of life in socialist regimes in terms of a literal assault on the self. These
scholars have described tremendous emotional and psychological trauma resulting from these
dynamics (Arenas, 1994, 1993; Kleinman and Kleinman, 1986; Kleinman, 1986; Lifton, 1956;
As a result of this devaluation of autonomy and individuality, the health care system in
Cuba is often quite paternalistic and authoritarian, and politics intrude into medical practice in a
number of subtle and overt ways. The eradication of the private sphere means that all activities,
whether in the household, community, or clinic become the object of medical-political scrutiny.
Cuban family doctors are expected to attend to the “health of the revolution” by monitoring their
neighborhoods for any sign of political dissent, and working closely with CDR officials to
correct these beliefs or behaviors. Family doctors are also expected to report on the “political
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integration” of their patients, and to share this information with state authorities. Political
integration refers to such activities as participation in volunteer labor brigades, membership in
mass organizations as well as exemplary work records.
The extent to which family doctors actually engage in political (or economic)
surveillance of their patients appears highly variable—some doctors appear eager to win political
points by informing on their patients while others struggle to maintain at least some
confidentiality. In one clinic, for instance, I observed several patients unselfconsciously confide
potentially "subversive" activities or sentiments (mostly involving household activities in the
informal economy) to their family doctor, who appeared to sympathize accordingly. It was clear
that the relationship of trust and caring between these doctors and their patients was forged out of
their mutual ability to protect these confidences.
On the other hand, I also observed one physician who considered it part of his duty to the
revolution to use his intimate knowledge of patients and their families to further the agenda of
the government. He was unpopular, and many people in his medical district chose to pursue
their health care exclusively in the informal economy--his clinic was often empty. The use of
socios as health professionals both strengthened kin or friendship bonds within these informal
networks, as well as allowing patients to subvert the political aspect of a formal medical visit
with a militant doctor.
The intrusion of politics in medical care is also illustrated by the militaristic rhetoric used
in Cuban medical textbooks and other health publications detailing the ideology and practice of
socialist medicine. This military model strongly emphasizes discipline, hierarchy, and complete
obedience to political authority for all doctors. One introductory textbook, for instance, (Rigol et
al, 1994:28) described the role of the "revolutionary" doctor as emblematic of "un militante de la
salud" ("a health militant"). Another source revealed that the standard medical school
curriculum includes several semesters of mandatory classes in "preparación militar"--or military
training (MINSAP, 1979). This training is designed to underscore the role of the physician in the
"war" against imperialism and underdevelopment. One description of the ideal revolutionary
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doctor included such personal traits as "simplicity, modesty, and honor" as well as "patriotic-
military preparation necessary for the defense of the revolution and socialism on the national or
international scale" (MINSAP, 1979:39).
Two short case studies are useful in illustrating the authoritarian and paternalistic
dimensions of the Cuban health system:
Case #1: Reproductive Choice
The Cuban Ministry of Health [MINSAP] expects physicians to structure their clinical
interventions to achieve the Ministry’s annual health goals. As with other sectors of the
economy, MINSAP sets statistical targets that are viewed as the equivalent of production
quotas. The most carefully guarded of these health targets is the infant mortality rate.
Any doctor who had an unusually high rate of infant deaths in his or her jurisdiction
would be viewed as having failed in a number of critical respects.
One of the family doctors I worked with in Havana was quite politically militant and took
these health goals very seriously. One day during my clinic observations I observed her
scheduling an ultrasound for a pregnant woman.
"What happens if an ultrasound shows some fetal abnormalities?" I asked.
"The mother would have an abortion," the doctor replied casually.
“Why?” I queried.
"Otherwise it might raise the infant mortality rate.”
Case Study #2: Medical Malpractice
One family doctor told me that she once led an instructional seminar for medical students
at the University of Havana. During the seminar they reviewed several problematic
cases, one of which involved a patient who had died due to mistakes made by a doctor.
The case was included as a warning to the students to be careful in following established
treatment protocols and surgical procedures.
After the seminar, one of the medical students approached the doctor and told her that
after reading the case file, she realized that the patient in the case study was actually a
close relative of hers. She said that the doctors who treated him told her family he had
died of natural causes, and she was very traumatized to find he had actually died from
malpractice. The doctor running the seminar sympathized with the student’s grief and
anger, but told her it would be better if she kept quiet and made no complaint against the
hospital. To do so would be to risk being labeled a political dissident or a
counterrevolutionary. The student reluctantly concurred.
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In the first case, the patient is granted no autonomy to make her own reproductive
choices. The clinical sphere is not a private space where doctors and patients discuss medical
options and come to a joint decision on how to proceed. Instead, the clinic is a political space
and decisions are often made according to the larger statistical and political goals set by the
national Ministry of Health. There is no right to privacy in the doctor-patient relationship to
protect clinical medicine from this type of political intrusion.
The second case also illustrates the disempowerment of individual patients that results
from the devaluation of individuality and autonomy. Collusion between physicians to cover-up
medical mistakes is not uncommon, and has been documented in a number of health systems,
including the United States and Japan (Langlie, 2002; Larimer, 2001). The key difference in the
Cuban example concerns the right of patients or family members to publicly criticize their
doctors and assert a right for compensation in known cases of malpractice. Such a course of
action implies a notion of individual rights, and a willingness to assert those rights. In the Cuban
system, patients are not accorded individual rights in this way, and any attempt to assert
otherwise would likely result in some form of political sanction.
Problematizing the State
These issues--the criminalization of dissent, the denial of individual rights, and the
eradication of the private sphere--are in my opinion, fundamental in understanding the
dissatisfaction and negative experiences that doctors and patients often report in Cuba. Previous
analyses of the Cuban health care system, however, have focused almost exclusively on
statistical health indicators and have not examined these issues. This oversight is significant, and
merits some discussion.
Historically medical anthropologists have not problematized the nature of power in
revolutionary socialist societies. Instead, most of these scholars have maintained a definition of
“socialism” that implicitly characterizes these regimes as progressive and egalitarian (Singer and
Baer, 1989; 1995; Singer, 1990; Singer, Baer and Lazarus, 1990). Power relations have not been
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discussed in these analyses, even in the post-Soviet era. Correspondingly, the criminalization of
dissent in Cuba and other revolutionary Marxist regimes has received little (if any) attention.
What is a dissident? What is a counterrevolutionary? Examining these questions provides some
insight into the darker aspects of socialist regimes and socialist health systems, and offers a
potential explanation for the discrepancy between the laudatory tone of the scholarly literature
and the criticisms voiced by individual doctors and patients I spoke with in Cuba.
In official Cuban government rhetoric, dissidents or critics are defined as “reactionaries”
or enemy agents devoted to subverting the egalitarianism and social justice of the revolution.
Their activities and beliefs are defined as political treason, and their criticisms are often
dismissed or rejected as “imperialist propaganda.” There is no possibility of legitimate dissent
within the socialist system. This position has often been implicitly validated by the social
science and public health literature on Cuba, which has not traditionally acknowledged or
analyzed the criticisms dissidents have made regarding the Cuban health care system (5).
Are all dissidents in Cuba reactionaries and enemy agents seeking to discredit the
government? My own ethnographic experience, as well as a number of published narratives
(Arenas, 1994; Llovio-Menendez, 1988; Mendoza and Fuentes, 2001; Valladares, 1986) suggest
otherwise. In many cases it appears that the label of dissident is used to penalize or discredit
anyone who challenges the authoritarianism of the state or attempts to assert individual rights in
the face of what can be extremely dehumanizing conditions. An ethnographic example is useful
in illustrating these dynamics:
Ethnographic Vignette: Who are the Counterrevolutionaries?
The niece of a friend in Santiago was admitted to a special school for young artists in
Havana. While she was there it was common knowledge that the staff of the school was
stealing food intended for the students and selling it on the black market. As a result the
students were often forced to survive on reduced rations. One week the students were left
with nothing to eat but white rice and they spontaneously erupted into a loud
demonstration of protest. Government officials quickly arrived on the scene and
demanded, “Who are the counterrevolutionaries who have organized this
demonstration!?” Students were interviewed one by one and pressured to inform on their
classmates--to reveal covert ‘imperialists’ who were ostensibly responsible for the
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protest. Eventually the situation was resolved and no one was arrested, but the students
remained cowed for the remainder of their time in the institute. My friend sighed after
recounting me this story. “Can you imagine? Nothing but white rice for an entire
This anecdote reveals the way dissent is constructed by the revolutionary government in
Cuba. Anyone who speaks out or protests is vulnerable to being labeled a counterrevolutionary
regardless of the actual circumstances or seeming legitimacy of the complaints. This pattern
appears common to all socialist countries. Not only is dissent prohibited but great effort is put
forth to discredit those who voice criticism, claim dissident status, or attempt to emigrate (see
Parchomenko, 1986).
Theorizing the Socialist State: “Ideocracy” and Health
A number of political theorists have attempted to explain these dynamics by examining
the relationship between Marxist theory and state power in socialist regimes. These theorists
have linked the criminalization of dissent and the eradication of the private sphere to the extreme
progressivism of Marxist revolutions (Buber, 1996; Luow, 1997; Kolakowski, 1977; Talmon,
1960). In other words, revolutionary movements are predicated on a belief in the collective unity
and rightness of “the masses.” The singularity of the revolutionary vision, and its presumed
historical irreversibility means that those who speak out in opposition subsequently become
defined as "traitors" or "enemy agents" seeking to undermine the historical destiny of the nation.
The mandate for unity and collective progress towards a utopian future effectively outlaws
dissent. Critics of the regime are subsequently viewed with great hostility, as serving to impede
the collective, predestined progress of the nation (and humanity) as a whole (Talmon, 1960:113).
These theorists have gone on to assert that these dynamics result in the creation of
“ideocratic” states. According to Remington (1988) in an ideocratic state, political power is used
to maintain the legitimacy of revolutionary ideology--a practice that includes aggressively
policing speech and other cultural productions. In other words, in a socialist regime--ideological
dissent or deviant beliefs are equated with political treason and heavily criminalized.
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In this sense Marxist revolutionary movements differ from other kinds of utopian
philosophies (such as religious or millenarian movements, for instance) in that the coercive
powers of a secular, rational, state are deployed to police dissent and bring the projected utopian
world into being. Vaclav Havel has described this configuration of ideology and power as
[Under socialism] reality does not shape theory, but rather the reverse. Power derives its
strength from theory, not from reality, and inevitably power begins to serve the ideology
rather than the other way around. Not only does this ideology guarantee power in the
present, but it increasingly becomes the guarantor of its continuity (quoted in Gleason,
These observations illustrate the necessity of including state power as a variable in
analyses of socialist health systems. Understanding the relationship between ideology and power
in a socialist state provides an useful explanatory model for the discrepancies between the
positive image of Cuba as reported in international social science and public health literature,
and the negative experiences and criticisms reported in informal speech by many doctors and
In an ideocratic state, political power is used to maintain the legitimacy of the ruling
doctrine--in this case, Marxist theory. If Marxist theory predicts that health and health care
delivery will improve in a revolutionary regime, then political power will be used to insure that
this pattern becomes manifest in the revolutionary state. These efforts can take several forms.
On the one hand, great emphasis is often placed on constructing hospitals and health facilities,
and equalizing access to health resources. Many early Soviet and Cuban publications, for
instance, emphasize this element of concern for health and health planning, and health statistics
were often used to illustrate the superiority of the socialist regime (Berman, 1953; Sweezy, 1949;
Hollander, 1997).
On the other hand, “revolutionary” health efforts can also include such practices as
deliberate manipulation of health statistics, aggressive political intrusion into health care
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decision-making, criminalizing dissent, and other forms of authoritarian policing of the health
sector designed to insure health changes reflect the (often utopian) predictions of Marxist theory.
All of these practices have been extensively documented for the former Soviet Union and China
(Cockerham, 1999; Feshbach and Friendly, 1992; Fitzpatrick, 1999; Garrett, 2000; Guillemin,
1999; Hoch, 1999; Lifton, 1976; Knaus, 1981; Tulchinsky and Varavikova, 1996).
During the Soviet era, however, the true extent of these practices was virtually unknown
in the West. Western social scientists interested in the question of socialist health frequently
cited favorable health statistics from the USSR, China, and Cuba, but did not look critically at
the ways state power was used to create and maintain these health indicators. In some cases it is
likely that the socialist system did genuinely improve health and health care delivery. In other
cases, it is likely that state power was used in a way to as to give the illusion that such positive
changes were taking place by imprisoning dissident physicians, intimidating would-be critics,
and manipulating health statistics.
Conclusions: Socialism, Public Health, and Social Science
In the introduction to this paper I raised a somewhat radical question: to what extent is
the favorable international image of the Cuban health care system maintained by the Cuban
government’s practice of suppressing dissent and covertly intimidating or imprisoning would-be
critics? The goal of the paper has not been to answer this question so much as to argue for its
relevance in assessing the Cuban case. When speaking informally, Cubans often make critical
comments about their experiences in the health care system. To my knowledge, however, these
locally articulated criticisms are not included in social science or public health articles on the
Cuban health care system. As a result of this omission, the scholarly literature on Cuba
implicitly validates the point of view of the Cuban government--that shortages are caused solely
by the U.S. trade embargo, and that that the complaints of dissidents are not legitimate.
The ethnographic data and analysis presented here are intended to challenge these
assumptions. I have tried to illustrate that material shortages are endemic to all centralized,
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
planned economies, and that in addition to devoting resources to hospital construction and
expansion of the health sector, ideocratic states often use very authoritarian tactics--tactics that
individual doctors and patients can subjectively experience very negatively--to create and
maintain favorable health statistics. When issues of state power and social control are factored
into the analysis, it becomes possible to see how Cuba’s health indicators are at least in some
cases obtained by imposing significant costs on the Cuban population--costs that Cuban citizens
are powerless to articulate or protest, and foreign researchers unable to empirically investigate.
At this point, it is important to clarify that taking a critical perspective toward Cuba and
Cuban health care does not imply a casual dismissal of the ideals of the Cuban Revolution or the
compelling rhetoric of social progress and equality that has accompanied Cuba’s health
initiatives. As Peter Berger has pointed out, “a critique is not an attack, but rather an effort to
perceive clearly and to weigh human costs” (1986:71). My primary goal in this work, therefore,
has been to use ethnographic data to illustrate some of the human costs of Cuba’s “socialist
health and health care,” and to challenge the case for Cuban exceptionalism with respect to some
of the problems that have been described for other socialist health systems such as the former
Soviet Union.
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
1. There is a small but significant body of literature in medical anthropology devoted to
exploring the relationship between capitalism, socialism, health and health care. This subfield is
usually referred to as “critical medical anthropology” and its focus is outlined in the works of
Baer, Singer and Johnsen (1986), Baer (1989; 1990), Singer (1990), Singer and Baer (1989;
1995), and Baer, Singer and Susser (1997). Other noted social scientists and health professionals
have also contributed to this literature and shaped the approach of critical medical
anthropologists, including Howard Waitzkin (1983), and Vincente Navarro (1976; 1978; 1986;
1989) and Ray Elling (1989). The focus of this scholarship has typically been applying Marxist
critiques to health conditions and health problems of capitalist countries and capitalist health
systems. The socialist alternative to capitalist health and medicine is usually described by these
scholars in rather idealistic terms, based on the predictions of Marxism rather than empirical
investigation of health conditions in socialist states.
2. Given the sensitive nature of such comments, extra care has been taken to insure
confidentiality. All names in this paper are pseudonyms, and in some cases genders, ages and
geographical locations have been changed to further conceal identities. Phrases marked as direct
quotes were not tape recorded. Instead I made notes to myself in my field notebook as soon as
possible after the interview or conversation took place.
3. To my knowledge, Scheper-Hughes, (1993) and Waitzkin and Britt (1989) offer the only two
medical anthropology studies of the Cuban health care system based on firsthand visits and
qualitative research. Unfortunately, these authors provide little or no information describing the
circumstances of their research, their research methods or the duration of their time in Cuba.
Another work that deserves mention here is Julie Feinsilver’s (1993) Healing the Masses. While
this book offers a very engaging and complete analysis of Cuban health policy, it does not
include qualitative community research or clinic observations.
4. A short overview of Cuba’s recent economic reforms will better contextualize this remark.
After the fall of the Soviet Union the severe economic crisis in Cuba forced new economic
reforms. Farmer’s markets were legalized, along with a number of small business operations,
such as family-run restaurants, bicycle repair, and so forth. The holding of American dollars was
legalized until recently, and the state developed a dual economic policy. Economic
centralization and rationing were kept in place for most goods and services but at the same time
hard currency markets were opened offering a number of specialized goods that were
unobtainable elsewhere. Most Cubans, however, (especially those outside of the city of
Havana) have excluded from participation in the privatized sectors of the economy, which are
largely restricted to political elites. In recent years even these limited reforms have been
reversed, privatization has diminished, and the economy has become recentralized in many
5. Despite the claims of Waitzkin and Britt (1989) that even “skeptical observers” have found
nothing to criticize in the Cuban health care system, there is a small but compelling body of
dissident literature in which criticism of health conditions and the health care system figures
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
prominently. See Brown and Lago (1991), Eberstadt (1986), Mendoza and Fuentes (2001),
Smith and Llorens (1988). For more general critiques (including Marxist critiques) see Edwards
(1993), Halperin (1994), Human Rights Watch (1990), Llovio-Menedez (1988), Timmerman
Cuban Affairs Vol. 2, Issue 3-July 2007
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About the Author
Katherine Hirschfeld is Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma. She has a B.A. in
Anthropology from the University of Massachusetts and a PhD in Anthropology from Emory
University. Hirschfeld has worked as a consultant for the Carter Center in Atlanta, the Pan-
American Development Foundation, and the United States Agency for International
Development. Her book, Health, Politics and Revolution in Cuba Since 1898 was published by
Transaction Press in 2007.
... Hirschfield's thesis on the Cuban healthcare system succinctly captures the culture whereby 'public criticism of the government is a crime in Cuba' such that 'formally eliciting critical narratives about healthcare would be viewed as a criminal act'. 44 The Cuban Ministry of Health (MINSAP) further set statistical targets viewed akin to production quotas, of which the IMR is the most closely guarded. 44 There is an endemic lack of privacy in the physician-patient relationship, and in addition, patients do not possess the right to criticise their doctors, protest, nor sue for malpractice-which we argue acts to disempower the individual. ...
... 44 The Cuban Ministry of Health (MINSAP) further set statistical targets viewed akin to production quotas, of which the IMR is the most closely guarded. 44 There is an endemic lack of privacy in the physician-patient relationship, and in addition, patients do not possess the right to criticise their doctors, protest, nor sue for malpractice-which we argue acts to disempower the individual. 44 The dehumanising nature of the healthcare system has led to the development of a black market in an effort by patients to receive better treatment given the difficulties they encounter in gaining access to certain medicines or treatments. ...
... 44 There is an endemic lack of privacy in the physician-patient relationship, and in addition, patients do not possess the right to criticise their doctors, protest, nor sue for malpractice-which we argue acts to disempower the individual. 44 The dehumanising nature of the healthcare system has led to the development of a black market in an effort by patients to receive better treatment given the difficulties they encounter in gaining access to certain medicines or treatments. 45 With regard to the pandemic, Cuba initially boasted an impressive response. ...
Authoritarian governments are characterised by political systems with concentrated and centralised power. Healthcare is a critical component of any state. Given the powers of an authoritarian regime, we consider the opportunities they possess to derive good health outcomes. The 2019 Varsity Medical Ethics Debate convened on the motion: 'This house believes authoritarian government is the route to good health outcomes' with Oxford as the Proposition and Cambridge as the Opposition. This article summarises and extends key arguments made during the 11th annual debate between medical students from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. By contrasting the principles underlying authoritarianism and democracy, it enables a discussion into how they translate into healthcare provision and the outcomes derived. Based on the foundation of said principles, an exploration of select cases represents examples of applications and the results. We analyse the past, present and future implications on the basis of fundamental patient-centred care.
... Also, there was poor hygiene and sanitary conditions with predominance of malnutrition amongst the children that contributed significantly to the IMR of 100/1000 live births, MMR 125/100,000 births, general mortality rate 11/1000 person and life expectancy of 59.5 years. This picture started changing after the revolution of 1959 took place [12]. ...
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All the countries in the world are struggling to improve their healthcare systems regardless of being rich or poor. Talking about Cuba, it represents an example of well-developed healthcare system and policies which is comparable to developed countries of the world. The success of Cuban healthcare system largely depends upon its strong primary health care system, proper immunization, robust public health policies, treating all the population classes equally providing them with free healthcare services. The control of infection spread and non-communicable diseases also contributes to the success of Cuban Healthcare system. We have discussed the Cuban health care system from start till the current situation and also, we performed SWOT analysis to bring the clearer depiction of the Cuban Healthcare System as it highlights the key internal and external issues which are further discussed in detail.
... Indeed, he goes further to suggest that Cuba led most Communist regimes in these categories. 46 Kath (2006) and Hirschfeld (2007aHirschfeld ( , 2007b are among the few sociologists to observe the Cuban health system at close quarters. Their reports are troubling as they provide instances of what appeared to be compulsory abortion and sterilisation. ...
Six decades ago, Cuba initiated a momentous social and economic experiment. This paper documents the effects of the experiment on Cuban living standards. Before the revolution, Cuban income per capita was on a par with Ireland or Finland. Indeed, Cuba was one of the richest of the Spanish-speaking societies. Growth is glacially slow after the revolution as GDP per capita increased by 40 per cent between 1957 and 2017 equal to an annual growth rate of 0.6 per cent—among the lowest anywhere. To be sure, other dimensions of well-being such as education and health improved, yet broader welfare measures do not change the conclusion that the revolution impoverished Cuba relative to any plausible counter factual.
... Yet, within the health sector, there is no right to privacy in the physicianpatient relationship, no right to informed consent and no right to refuse treatment. 43 These challenges point to an inherent tension within health security between the protection of civil liberties and public health, as encapsulated by the Siracusa Principles. 44 The social control exercised by the Cuban state thus raises questions of where the line between liberty and security lies and what rights governments have to restrict individual freedom in the name of public health-a debate that has also played out in other contexts, such as in the handling of patients with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis globally. ...
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Cuba has been largely absent in academic and policy discourse on global health security, yet Cuba’s history of medical internationalism and its domestic health system have much to offer contemporary global health security debates. In this paper, we examine what we identify as key traits of Cuban health security, as they play out on both international and domestic fronts. We argue that Cuba demonstrates a strong health security capacity, both in terms of its health systems support and crisis response activities internationally, and its domestic disease control activities rooted in an integrated health system with a focus on universal healthcare. Health security in Cuba, however, also faces challenges. These concern Cuba’s visibility and participation in the broader global health security architecture, the social controls exercised by the state in managing disease threats in Cuban territory, and the resource constraints facing the island—in particular, the effects of the US embargo. While Cuba does not frame its disease control activities within the discourse of health security, we argue that the Cuban case demonstrates that it is possible to make strides to improve capacity for health security in resource-constrained settings. The successes and challenges facing health security in Cuba, moreover, provide points of reflection relevant to the pursuit of health security globally and are thus worth further consideration in broader health security discussions.
... Under the constraints of these targets, doctors often pressure women into abortion and sometimes perform abortions regardless of the consent of the mother in order to avoid the birth of an infant with a high likelihood of dying early. 31 Forced sterilisations are not unheard of. 32 Physicians worried that the behaviour of a mother might lead to missing the centrally established targets and will prescribe internment, against the mother's will, in a casa de maternidad (ie, maternity hospital) so that they may regulate her behaviour. ...
... 4. Patients have no right to privacy in Cuba nor do they have the right to refuse treatment-see Hirschfeld, (2007aHirschfeld, ( ,b, 2009. 5. There is also substantial evidence of women being pressured by physicians on top of instances of the lack of informed consent (Hirschfeld 2007b ...
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Researchers and policymakers often rely on the infant mortality rate as an indicator of a country’s health. Despite arguments about its relevance, uniform measurement of infant mortality is necessary to guarantee its use as a valid measure of population health. Using important socioeconomic indicators, we develop a novel method to adjust country-specific reported infant mortality figures. We conclude that an augmented measure of mortality that includes both infant and late fetal deaths should be considered when assessing levels of social welfare in a country. In addition, mortality statistics that exhibit a substantially high ratio of late fetal to early neonatal deaths should be more closely scrutinized.
You work for a development NGO abroad. You are called by a Government official to help to set up a functioning healthcare system in a Sub-Saharan country with a difficult recent history. The case revolves around examining healthcare systems (HCS) and using this knowledge to come up with some ideas of what to implement in this country. You first examine details of the incumbent country's system. The prompts examine different types of HCS and their goals as set out by the WHO. The case goes on to discuss necessary structural components of an HCS. You have another meeting with the minister who gives you ideas on what he would like in the HCS. Themes of political interference in HCS are explored as well as private vs public cover and equity vs efficiency arguments. Further prompts examine costs and evaluation of HCS. The story evolves to focus on improving primary care with relevant prompts. It also explores health care professionals in developing countries and the difficulty retaining them. The case finishes with a study on Cuba as a developing country that has gone against the odds to have a well functioning healthcare system
Cuba, a country that is often portrayed as an isolated, secretive and bureaucratic dictatorship, would appear to present many challenges for a social researcher intent on eliciting the genuine opinions of the native population. However, in December 2008, I began just such an investigation, researching ‘environmental justice’ (i.e. the social and distributive impacts of environmental policy and practice) in the country, using a mixture of interview and participant observation techniques. As might be expected, much of the fieldwork was dominated by the sensitive political context, creating numerous methodological issues and dilemmas, as well as personal challenges. This paper looks at the difficulties faced, in particular with regard to the problem of attaining reliability and validity, and the strategies that were used to overcome them. It will be of relevance to anyone considering carrying out fieldwork investigations in socialist, and other politically sensitive, locations.
This book provides a detailed history of Cuba from before the arrival of Columbus to 1995. Topics covered include: the Spanish colonisation, the role of Christianity, slavery, the US interventions, the Mafia connection, the Castro revolution, and Cuba's struggle to survive in the so-called 'Special Period' following the collapse of the Socialist bloc. Particular attention is given to the prolonged US efforts to overthrow the Castro regime, involving the United States in violations of international law and crimes against humanity.