Wall Street Journal Knocks 'Cuban Fairy Tale from PBS'

Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady denounced the PBS NewsHour in Monday’s newspaper, under the headline “A Cuban Fairy Tale from PBS.” O’Grady said a three-part NewsHour series on Cuban health care by reporter Ray Suarez came off “like a state propaganda film.”

O’Grady contrasted Suarez with Spanish television correspondent Vicente Botin, who tells of a woman who was so frustrated by the doctor shortage in Cuba she hung a sheet from her balcony with the words “trade me to Venezuela” on it. When police arrived, she said “I’m as revolutionary as the next guy, but if you want to see a Cuban doctor, you have to go to Venezuela.” O’Grady added:

That story was not part of the three-part report by Ray Suarez on Cuban health care that aired on PBS’s NewsHour last week. Nor was on the one about the Cuban whose notice of his glaucoma operation arrived in 2005, three years after he died and five years after he had requested it. Nor was ther any coverage of the town Mr. Botin writes about close to the city of Holguin, that in 2006, had one doctor treating 600 families. In fact, it was hard to recognize the country that Mr. Suarez claimed to be describing.

The series was taped in Cuba with government “cooperation” so there is no surprise that it went heavy on the party line. Still, there was something disturbing about how Mr. Suarez allowed himself to be used by the police state, dutifully reciting its dubious claims as if he were reporting great advances in medical science.

The first Suarez report on December 20 didn’t paint a rosy picture about Cuba’s economic decline, but the more specific report on health care on December 21 was the usual Rosy Scenario:

RAY SUAREZ: One of Cuba's greatest prides is its health care system. Cuba's government promotes the country`s free and universal medical care from the moment a baby is born as the cornerstone of its communist state. And, according to the World Health Organization, the country has much to boast about. The average Cuban lives to the age of 78. That's slightly longer than the life span of the average American. The cost of health care in Cuba is less than $400 a year per person. In the U.S., the annual tab is almost 20 times higher.

And there are twice as many doctors per person in Cuba than in the United States. In fact, it's the highest doctor-patient ratio in the world. How can one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere provide free care and achieve such impressive health outcomes?

GAIL REED, Editor, "MEDICC Review": Prevention, prevention and more prevention.

SUAREZ: Gail Reed is American-born and living in Cuba. She edits a journal that studies Cuban medicine called "MEDICC."

REED: Having access to family doctors and nurses I think has been a key to Cuban success, even when there wasn't much medicine in the medicine cabinet. The preventive approach, having health care workers accessible to people, doing home visits, is a critical part of the success.

SUAREZ: Unlike the rest of the developing world, there`s no doctor shortage in Cuba, which means the health care system here can push doctors and nurses down to the smallest rural communities, providing a kind of care that`s both personal and persistent.

O'Grady insists "dissent is spreading in Cuba like dengue fever because daily life is so onerous." Botin has authored a book called Los Funerales de Castro that pulls back the curtain on the "Potemkin village" foreigners see on official visits. In private, there are "no limits to the derision of the brothers Castro." But:

Mr. Suarez's report, by contrast is like a state propaganda film. In one segment, an American woman named Gail Reed who lives in Cuba tells him that the government's claim of its people's longevity is due to a first rate system of disease prevention. he then parrots the official line that Cuba's wealth of doctors is the key ingredient...An abundance of doctors? Not in the Cuba Mr. Botin lived in. In 2006, the government claimed there were 65,000 doctors. That number, he says, was "a figure many professionals considered inflated." When Cubans complained they couldn't get care, he notes that the state upped the number "magically" to 71,000 five months later. Given Fidel's habit of making things up, it's hard to know how many competent doctors the government has trained. But there is no disputing the fact that thousands of medics have been sent overseas in large numbers to earn hard currency for the regime. There is also no question that Cubans are paying the price at home.

O'Grady also took exception with this part of the story:

SUAREZ: But Gail Reed says one of the biggest problems remains the embargo of medicine from U.S. pharmaceutical companies.

REED: There are serious restrictions on patented medicines. The latest cancer drugs, for example, have patents that are 20 years, and now the pharmaceutical companies are asking for more time for their patents. So, these are inaccessible to Cuba in regular commercial terms.

O'Grady declared: "But there is no embargo on food or medicine. The problem is that the government lacks the money to pay for new medicines that are protected under patent." She concluded: "Reporters who want access to Cuba know that they have to toe the Castro line. I get that. Mr. Suarez must figure that this American audience does not."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis