A Minister in the Public Pillory

The street corners of Havana are hot. Glowing. Like a match on sandpaper that will burst into flame at the slightest touch. Baseball is to blame. This spring it is being played coast-to-coast on the island, celebrating the playoffs of the national sport, and Los Industriales, the team representing the capital, is hitting hot. The fans are going wild.

If baseball or “the ball,” as it is called in Cuba, serves as relaxation for most men, for women the sedative is found in soap operas, the electronic opium that makes them forget for 45 minutes that their refrigerators are empty.

But the ordinary Cuban also gives at least a passing glance to local events. And sees bad signs. Circulating clandestinely throughout the country are more than 300 photos of 26 deaths (rumored to be almost 60) from hunger, cold, and ill-treatment this past January, at the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana, known as Mazorra.

If you have the courage to look at the entire dark collection you have a strong stomach. The photos, taken by police experts, somehow escaped the iron state censorship imposed by the authorities over the Mazorra case. And many people carry them on their USB or flash memory, and late at night, when the children are asleep, like a scary movie, they watch the horrors on their computers.

The black and white images of the dead are comparable to those from any Nazi concentration camp. Men without teeth, with fresh marks from beatings, emaciated bodies, concrete testimony of the hunger they suffered. They were so thin that three bodies fit on one stretcher.

Confronted with such horror, ordinary people have been shaken. Roberto Osorio, 34, an engineer, trembled with fear at the photos. And he wondered how these things could happen in this country, which, according to its leaders, has a public health system comparable with the best in the world.

In a survey of 30 people, between 19 and 74 years old, of both sexes, they unanimously demanded not only a thorough investigation, but also asked for the resignation of Public Health Minister José Ramón Balaguer Cabrera.

Balaguer (born in Santiago de Cuba, 1932), a doctor by profession and one of the guerrilla commanders who participated in the revolution, is a member of the State Council and the Politburo of the Communist Party. He was appointed Minister of Public Health by Fidel Castro himself, when on July 31, 2006, he announced that for health reasons he was transferring power to his brother Raul.

One of those surveyed, Dahlia Fuentes, 56, an architect, doesn’t believe it’s possible that the minister wasn’t aware of what was happening in the country’s main mental hospital. “In every workplace in Cuba, there is a core of the Party and the Communist Youth, and they have to report what goes on. Furthermore, I assume that the Ministry of Health makes periodic inspections of its hospitals. If, in spite of all that, Balaguer’s story is that he was not informed of what was going on there, then he should resign because of incompetence” the architect says angrily.

Sara Villar, 21, a medical student, goes further. “Events like these are a clear sign that the country needs radical changes. It is not enough just to ask for the resignations and prosecutions of those responsible, it is the system that doesn’t work,” says the future doctor.

What happened in Mazorra in January 2010, has placed the performance of public officials, administrators and ministers in the public pillory. Also the political opposition, alternative journalists and the blogosphere are demanding the termination of Balaguer. The blogger Yoani Sanchez opened the tag #despidanaabalaguer# on Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of followers so far.

Amid the passionate discussions around the series of local baseball playoffs, and the next episode of the snoozer soap operas, the  opinion on the street prevails: people want the head of the Minister of Public Health to roll.

The government has gone totally mute. Its response is silence. Even in these days, Jose Ramon Balaguer is appearing more than ever on TV. And people are wondering if that is the method adopted by the mandarins of court to confirm him in office.

It would be swimming against the current. But if there is one thing the Castro brothers know how to do well, it is swim upstream.

Iván García

Photo: José Ramón Balaguer during the presentation of the book, “Battles for Life,” in February 2009.

Translated by: Tomás A.