Rep. Watson wrong on Castro and Cuba

politics | Aug 30, 2009 | By Felton Newell

Congresswoman Diane Watson's comments, at a August 27, 2009 health care town hall forum, trivialize the brutality of the Castro regime and overlook the failures of the Cuban health care system.

Cuba’s so called universal healthcare system has been a private embarrassment for the communist country as most of the nation’s patients are denied even the most rudimentary access to safe and modern healthcare, yet, yesterday in a town hall meeting. Congresswoman Watson heaped praise on Cuba’s health care. Not stopping at admiring a system where access to simple everyday medications is often an epic struggle, Congresswoman Watson went on to extol Cuba’s former dictator Fidel Castro, a man who has murdered, tortured and exiled his own countrymen as "one of the brightest leaders I have ever met". It is no surprise that journalists and citizens alike have responded the Congresswoman’s remarks with shock and trepidation.

Most American’s familiarity with the Cuban healthcare system is limited to the Michael Moore documentary "Sicko", but to the residents of Cuba the reality of their access to healthcare is quite different than what Cuba allowed Mr. Moore to film for his movie. "Universal healthcare" in Cuba is in reality a two-tiered system where, on the one hand, the elite members of the ruling Communist party and wealthy tourists willing to pay have access to relatively high end health care in Havana, and, on the other hand, the rest of the country is forced to seek healthcare in dangerously understaffed and archaic hospitals and clinics. Since private hospitals are illegal in the country, the vast majority of Cuban residents are forced without an option to rely on the underfunded government run healthcare program. It is no surprise that the World Health Organization ranked Cuba’s healthcare system behind that of the United States.

Those familiar with Cuban healthcare outside of Havana, cite it as a cautionary tale of backwards ineffective medicine. The country is plagued by medical shortages of hundreds of the most common and necessary modern drugs. Important daily medications like aspirin not only require prescriptions, but are in such short supply that there are often waiting periods of weeks for the drug, which even when available, is rationed to patients in envelops rather than bottles. For those unlucky enough to require hospitalization, many of the state run hospitals require patients to bring their own sheets, blankets and water. The situation has recently been made even worse with one in five health care workers being sent to work in Venezuela in return for oil, an arrangement which has left many state run healthcare facilities without a resident physician. Its no wonder that in a documentary shot for ABC televisionwith undercover cameras, Cuban patients were shown crowded in to rooms with rusty equipment, broken windows and covered in flies.

Congresswomen Watson’s remarks must also be noted for her high praise for Cuba’s former dictator. Castro has long been noted for his brutal rule of power, even once exclaiming "revolution first, elections later". It is estimated that during his tenure as dictator his regime murdered tens of thousands of its countrymen and imprisoned many thousands of others for having contrary views, lifestyles and in the case of many journalists, for simply reporting the news. Furthermore, Castro has imprisoned his own people in concentration camps for their politics, beliefs and sexuality. It is therefore no wonder that the Human Rights Watch once labeled his regime as a "abusive machinery".

It is certainly clear that our health care system is in need of reform, and that the current national dialogue is a vital component of the reform process, but equally clear is that the model for such reform should not be a repressive regime’s two tiered system that leaves those most in need of healthcare woefully left behind. In citing the Cuban system Congresswomen Watson misses an important component of the cure for our nation’s healthcare crisis, that not only do we need to ensure healthcare for all Americans, but we need to make certain that the healthcare is of the high quality and standards that Americans deserve.

Mr. Newell is the Democratic primary challenger to Rep. Diane Watson.

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