Cuba’s communist regime has long trumpeted its health system as a model for other countries – but systemic dysfunction is leaving Cubans vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

In the months following the outbreak of COVID-19, the Cuban government has reported 1,754 cases of infection, 79 deaths and 1,495 recoveries. Compared to other Latin American countries, these numbers are low – yet the nature of the Cuban regime makes it impossible to know for sure whether cases are being underreported or if the government is being transparent.

As with other authoritarian countries, Cuba’s systemic dysfunction makes it both impossible to trust official data relating to the pandemic and raises serious concerns about the government’s capacity to adequately respond to the crisis. Moreover, the lack of any accountability to citizens inherent to authoritarian systems means that the propaganda needs of the regime will always take precedence over the Cuban people.

Despite the urgent need for domestic healthcare workers, Cuba has ramped up its efforts to send medical missions abroad – a propaganda push that helps to generate income and good press, while deflecting attention from the regime’s many deficiencies. Since the 1960s, Cuba has sent hundreds of thousands of medical doctors in an apparent show of altruism. In reality, the exporting of these services brings in billions of dollars annually, while doctors are poorly paid and work in terrible conditions.

These medical missions have historically deprived Cubans of much needed healthcare services – a reality that is particularly concerning as Cuba grapples with a pandemic that requires an abundance of medical professionals to keep citizens safe. In an interview with IRI’s Global Podcast,  independent journalist Luz Escobar revealed that Cuba’s “hospitals are in horrible shape,” lacking both proper medical equipment and trained staff. According to Escobar, Cubans rarely receive quality treatment due to faulty hospital infrastructure and overworked doctors – a shortage caused by Cuba’s export of thousands of doctors on propaganda-friendly international medical missions.

The shortage of medical resources and medicine are a constant struggle for Cubans. According to a recent study by the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights (OCDH), more than 80 percent of citizens cannot find medicine in state pharmacies. Likewise, 30 percent resort to finding them elsewhere, which is an enormous challenge in a system that represses private initiative. Needless to say, these conditions are not optimal when facing an unprecedented global pandemic.

Food insecurity and water shortages – both of which are the consequence of the regime’s disastrous policies – are also driving Cubans to make decisions that violate public health guidelines and may hasten the spread of the coronavirus. According to Reuters, Cubans have no choice but to ignore social distancing guidelines in their search for increasingly scarce food. In fact, 261,000 Cubans across the country have been unable to buy essential products since the onset of COVID-19.

In addition to troubling images of Cubans ignoring social distancing guidelines to line up for food, many are taking to the streets in protest of water shortages, at a time when clean water and handwashing is essential to combatting the virus. Worryingly, the OCDH reports that 70 percent of the Cuban population does not have permanent water service.

Underpinning all of these concerns is the fact that there are no mechanisms for the Cuban people to hold their government accountable for its failures – nor is there an effective way to sound the alarm so that mistakes can be addressed before the public health crisis spirals out of control. Instead, the Cuban government is cracking down on any efforts to share information through independent outlets: The recently-issued Decree 370 penalizes spreading information contrary to the common good, morals, decency, and integrity through public data transmission networks.”

As is to be expected from an authoritarian regime, instead of preparing the Cuban population for a potentially devastating public health crisis, the Cuban government is putting its own survival and propaganda push first. For further insights into this issue, listen to the latest episode of IRI’s Global podcast, featuring Cuban dissident Dr. Daily Coro on Thursday, May 21 at 8:00 a.m. EDT.

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