During a four-day period earlier this month, Havana’s best-known psychiatric hospital witnessed one of the worst medical tragedies in Cuban history.
A wave of mental patients died when freezing temperatures – sometimes as low as 38 degree Fahrenheit, or 3 Celsius – struck Rancho Boyeros, a municipality outside the capital near José Martí International Airport, where the famous institution is located.
News of what happened at the hospital – named after famed Cuban psychiatrist Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz but still popularly known by its former name of Mazorra – first circulated as rumor and were then reported Jan. 13 in Penúltimos Días, the blog of Ernesto Hernández Busto, a Cuban now living in Barcelona.
Just two days later, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) confirmed 26 deaths; rumors had put the number as high as 30. MINSAP claimed the deaths were associated with “risk factors of patients with psychiatric illness” and “the natural biological deterioration associated with aging.”
In any case, the names of those killed have not been released, and the hospital workers have been ordered to maintain absolute discretion during the police investigations.
Due to the seriousness of the situation, Cuban President Raúl Castro Ruz and Minister of Public Health José Ramón Balaguer visited the hospital, along with staff from the Department of Technical Investigations (DTI) and State Security (DSE G2). Staff from the Army and the Council of State have responded by supplying coats, blankets, clothing, shoes and boots, have arranged for a diet higher in protein and calories for all the patients, and have brought in a brigade to perform general repairs.
They have also arranged for medical and nursing staff from other Havana hospitals to attend the mental patients. These specialists will try to overcome temporarily the deficit in clinical attention that, in the last months, has affected residents of the 2,500-bed psychiatric hospital.
Elizardo Sánchez Santacruz, who leads the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), catalogued what happened as “preventable deaths,” and “criminal negligence on the part of a government characterized by general inefficiency.”
“They died of hypothermia,” he said, “which is completely unreasonable in a markedly tropical country like Cuba.”
Conditions of the old Mazorra clinic have deteriorated. The windows lack glass panes, quilts are scarce, and the food is inadequate, aggravated by the suspected employee embezzlement and smuggling of goods allocated to the hospital by the state.
The hospital’s neighbors have lodged their protests with international news agencies, such as the BBC and AFP, as much for the dismal conditions of the hospital as for the fact that filthy, half-dressed patients roam beyond the grounds, even begging for handouts at a nearby gas station.
The Cuban government has created an emergency Special Commission to investigate the fatal events. According to the terse official note published in the newspaper Granma (the organ of the Communist Party of Cuba, and the country’s primary newspaper), they have already detected “various shortcomings related to the non-adoption of timely measures,” for which “those principally responsible for these events will be subject to the relevant Courts.”
Before the revolution whentook in January 1959, the Mazorra clinic was a human dumping ground, with scant attention to healthcare. That changed during the decades the hospital was overseen by the late Commander Doctor Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz. Still, political opponents of the government have made allegations of mistreatment that hang over the hospital, including reports of prisoners admitted as “patients” and lodged in special rooms set aside for that purpose.
Despite the limited official information released on the Island, the magnitude of the latest tragedy has stirred public opinion, shifting attitudes on the street from surprise to indignation.