HAVANA, Cuba. – When the tourism sector in Cuba began to collapse in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Cuban government propelled campaigns to attract foreigners to “a safe country” with a “strong health care system”.
Reality turned out to be unsafe and fragile. Shortly after the first opening of its borders to tourism in November 2020, the Cuban health system collapsed. Old infrastructural problems in the health care system that had accumulated long before the pandemic, surfaced, and the model based on primary health care caved in.
The chronic shortage of medications, as well as the collapse of hospitals and funeral services crushed the international image of Cuba as a medical power, an image that sustained health tourism.
Regardless, the medical facilities available for the health care of foreign patients stand in sharp contrast with the hospitals, polyclinics and medical offices available to Cubans.
According to Dr. Miladys Orraca, president of Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos S.A. (CSMC, by its Spanish acronym) –Cuba’s medical-services marketing company- Cuba offers services to foreign tourists throughout the country: “Five specialized clinics, nine international health clinics, medical offices in all tourism poles, and pharmacies and opticians that serve foreign clients through 280 different programs.”
In particular, the “Cira García” Clinic, the leading medical facility earmarked for health tourism in the island, is a facility promoted as a “comfort zone”. In it, each patient can rely on the most advanced technologies, private rooms with direct oxygen supply and other lodging comforts and medical services.
Of all the services offered by the clinic, seen in today’s context, one in particular stands out: the clinical analysis of pediatric patients suffering from post-COVID-119 syndromes.
Through blood tests, doctors at this facility can diagnose the health condition of a minor after contagion. The program was designed by the clinic’s own pediatric specialists for foreign patients, tourists, and, of course, for government officials who do not go to the same hospitals for their health care that are assigned to the Cuban people.
CubaNet contacted via e-mail the “Cira García” Clinic to ascertain if they offered treatment as well to pediatric patients who were Cuban nationals. The institution responded as follows: “The clinic has been designed for a health tourism modality. No medical or dental care services are given here to domestic patients, as they are provided free-of-charge as part of our public health system.”
In spite of that statement, CubaNet found no similar medical services offered in any of the hospitals available to Cuban nationals, least of all hospital conditions that could resemble the “high standards of excellence” of those earmarked for tourists and the elite, the very thing that makes for the great contrast between health care provided to Cuban nationals and that provided to foreigners.
“Excellence and quality” is the slogan used by Comercializadora de Servicios Médicos Cubanos S.A. (CSMC) to promote medical facilities linked to health tourism.
This same modality applies to “La Pradera” International Health Care Center, located in the plush Siboney neighborhood of Havana. The medical center-cum-hotel offers medical programs ranging from orthopedic, respiratory and cardiovascular rehab to therapies to combat stress.
According to the directors of CSMC, it is in other countries, not in Cuba, that health care systems fail.
According to a release published in Granma in 2016, tourists “have told us that in their countries of origin, they have no resources available and that they experience long waiting periods before they can undergo surgical procedures or other treatments.”
The more than 250 medical programs available to tourists include personalized services for each patient, and they start at US$ 2,500. Likewise, the fact that they are personalized allows patients to be near tourism poles like Varadero, Santa Lucía, Santiago de Cuba, Pinar del Río and Holguín.
Prices for the various treatments fluctuate around the international median price, but this does not jeopardize the regime’s profits. The regime finances these institutions without gain to the national health care system. Specialists who work in these centers are paid ridiculously low salaries when compared to that of colleagues in other parts of the world.
This business is comprised of a network that includes the best medical, scientific and research centers in the country, with an availability of advanced technology that allows for more than 150 diagnostic tests to be administered.
Among the most notorious centers, in addition to those already mentioned, we find the Neurological Restoration Center; the Placental Histotherapy Center; the “Camilo Cienfuegos” International Center for Pigmentary Retinosis; the Medical and Surgical Research Center (CIMEQ, by its Spanish acronym); as well as the addiction rehabilitation centers belonging to Cubanacán Agency, an entity of the military business conglomerate GAESA.
If that were not enough, there are wards for foreign tourists within the same hospitals where the health crisis is decimating the Cuban population today. Several hospitals in the capital have international –foreign patients only- wards, among them the Gastroenterology Institute; the Hematology and Immunology Institute; the Oncology Institute; the Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery Institute; and others in pediatrics and surgery.
In addition, at the “Vladimir Illich Lenin” General Hospital in Holguín, whose collapse was recently in the news, there is an international ward on the fifth floor, adjacent to the Cardiology ward.
Vaccines for Tourists
The Cuban government has promoted vaccinating tourists against COVID-19 with its own vaccines (Soberana 02 and Abdala). In addition, it considered supplying Nasaferon (a Cuban nasal version of Inteferon alfa 2-b) to international travelers, as optional preventive treatment to avert COVID-19 contagion.
Vicente Verez, Director of the Finlay Vaccines Institute, in Havana, expressed certainty that in 2021, Cuba’s entire population would be vaccinated against COVID-19. “Tourists will have the option to vaccinate themselves in Cuba if they so desire,” stated the scientist in a segment on TeleSur channel that promotes “beaches, the Caribbean, mojitos and vaccines” in Cuba.
However, reality derailed Cuba’s plans. Cuba is far from reaching tourism high season 2021 (October) with the pandemic under control. In its attempt to stop the rapid spread of the virus, the government even reached out to the Chinese for their Sinopharm vaccine.
Simultaneous to the regime’s announcement about opening its borders to foreign visitors in late 2021, many countries are issuing travel alerts due to the high risk of contracting the virus in Cuba.
While this is happening, Cubans are left to fend for themselves to obtain “free” medical attention. In the meantime, foreigners and the ruling elite can opt for “relaxing from stress, curing illnesses and elevating their quality of life” thanks to the practice of health tourism in the island.
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