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Cuba: Health and Education
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Social Consequences of the Special Period > Health and Education


Health and education, the social sectors much praised for their achievements under Fidel Castro's rule, have been severely affected by the economic austerity of the Special Period. Cuban hospitals and other public health facilities are experiencing chronic and severe shortages of medicines and other basic supplies. The government has authorized Catholic Relief Services (Caritas), which is the Roman Catholic Church's humanitarian arm, and other religious and humanitarian organizations to import and distribute medical donations because they cannot be found in government pharmacies. Food shortages have been blamed for serious nutritional problems. Daily caloric and protein intake declined drastically after 1990. Vitamin B-12 deficits among Cubans also led to a serious outbreak of optic neuropathy that was responsible for the temporary blindness of 50,000 people in 1991-93; the outbreak was arrested by the emergency nationwide distribution of vitamin supplements. In addition, the proportion of newborns with low birth weights began to rise in the early 1990s, as did the number of underweight pregnant women. Mortality rates have also risen among elderly nursing-home residents.

As domestic health care standards deteriorated, Cuba was promoting medical services for paying foreign patients at the country's leading medical institutions. This practice has led to charges that the medical needs of Cuban patients are being sacrificed ("medical apartheid") for the benefit of foreigners. The government responds that the foreign currency earned by treating foreign patients benefits all Cubans because the earnings are used to buy medical supplies abroad. That health standards have not deteriorated even further is thanks to the importance accorded the sector and the extensive health care infrastructure, including medical personnel, developed in earlier decades.

Since the onset of the Special Period in the early 1990s, the educational system, like other sectors of the economy, has suffered from severe funding cutbacks. Thousands of teachers are reported to have left their posts for employment in other better-paying sectors, such as tourism, where dollars can be earned. This trend has led to expressions of alarm over a likely and growing teacher shortage. However, the number of teachers trained in Cuba is so large and the decline in the number of students (because of declining birth rates) so significant, that this concern seems groundless. Although no schools have been shut down, schools are poorly maintained, and educational supplies are scarce. In addition, some educational facilities have been abandoned or converted to other uses because of the declining number of students. The government has also taken steps to reduce university enrollments.

Last Updated: April 2001

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Cuba was first published in 2001. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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