A Medical Crisis In Cuba

A cloud hangs over Fidel Castro's 40th anniversary celebration. One of the crowning achievements of his government, free universal health care, is in critical condition, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston, on location in Havana.

Cuban doctors blame the U.S. economic embargo for cutting off affordable drugs and medical supplies. "I know that if the American people knew what was happening in Cuba they would revolt against it," said Dr. Reuben Martinez Gabalda, a Cuban doctor.

"There is no case in history of a nation interfering with the free exercise of medicine," he said.

For three decades, Castro withstood U.S. economic pressure with financial support from the Soviet Union. But the collapse of European communism eight years ago left Cuba stranded.

Last week a delegation of prominent African-Americans, sponsored by the liberal think-tank Transafrica, saw hospital treatment rooms in disrepair, antiquated equipment, and a staggering shortage of supplies.

Said Dr. Tina Poussaint, one of those who took the tour: "Surgical gloves, catheters, bandages: They have a paucity of these kinds of equipment and have to even reuse surgical gloves."

Cuba's life expectancy and infant mortality rates are comparable to developed nations. There are 60,000 doctors here, but they don't have the resources for effective treatment.

Recently, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced a policy shift, allowing more American cash, food, and farm equipment. But Cubans had been expecting help with medicine. A U.S. spokesman here in Havana says the recent policy change did not include medicine because the Clinton administration has already established a procedure that allows Cuba to purchase drugs and medical equipment from licensed exporters in America.

Castro is counting on the support of influential Americans to press Congress for normalized relations with Cuba. As he enters the fifth decade of his rule, the battle for public opinion may be his final struggle against his strongest foe.

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