Cuba has named top Communist Party official Jose Ramon Balaguer to turn around a deteriorating free health care system that now finds patients bringing their own sheets and food to the hospital.
Balaguer, the party’s former ideological chief and a trusted aide to President Fidel Castro, replaced Damodar Pena as minister of Public Health, a government statement said on Thursday.
Balaguer, 71, a doctor who joined Castro’s guerrilla movement in 1958, was in charge of the party’s international relations.
He will have to deal with mounting complaints by Cubans about the decline of Cuba’s much lauded public health system, hit by economic crisis since the collapse of Soviet communism and the burden of sending many doctors abroad.
Cuba has 15,000 doctors currently working in 64 countries, usually in poor rural communities with no health care, like Haiti. More than half, some 8,000, are in Venezuela, whose populist government in Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere.
Cuba’s free health care had achieved some of the best public health standards in the Third World and reduced infant mortality to below that of the United States.
But Cubans complain that hospitals have deteriorated and lack medicine, equipment and hygiene. Patients often take their on sheets and food. Many Cubans are upset that their family doctors are being sent abroad and replaced by less experienced medics.
“I had to take my sheet, my towel and even a ventilator ... the toilets were filthy,” Rosario Garcia, an elderly Havana resident who was recently in hospital.
Havana blames its economic woes on U.S. sanctions.