I was mugged in Havana


I was mugged in Havana. It was the
two-men-and-a-motorcycle routine that can happen anywhere and I hung on
to my bag with killer strength. The contents — cigarettes and $20 —
spilled to the ground as the tightly woven bag split in two. Half of it
disappeared into the darkness at high speed, leaving me lying on the
road clinging triumphantly to the other half, blood streaming down my

police arrived in no time and as we drove to the hospital, they sang to
me — a harmony for three voices, mellow and tuneful — and the young
policeman in the back held my hand reassuringly.

I was not in
the slightest bit anxious. Medical care is a priority in Cuba. The
doctor-citizen ratio is the highest in the world even though the US
blockade has denied the health system its basic necessities. The
hospital’s ‘Sala Antiseptico’ was seriously lo-tech and I was
immediately suspicious about the accuracy of the sign. There was
nothing white. Nor was there any equipment. Or tissues, or disposable
plastic glove dispensers, or pump-packs of sterilizing wash, or face
masks, or surgical aprons; just a stone sink, a cake of soap and a
chattering crowd of supporters and kibitzers — my companions, my
companions’ taxi driver who drove them from the scene and refused to
leave until I was declared fit, various staff from our hotel, medical
students, a hospital cleaner and the police woman who stayed and
stroked my arm throughout the procedure.

About ten people in
all surrounded the stainless steel table that was my surgical bed and
they all stayed for the hour it took the doctor to clean the wound and
put ten stitches into my forehead. He finally sat me up, held my
shoulders, kissed both cheeks and looked deeply into my eyes. ‘Are you
losing your mind?’ he asked. Convinced by my equally comical response
in Spanish that I wasn’t in the least bit disoriented, he let me go. No
charge, no fee, no bill.

Six weeks earlier I had spent eight
hours in a Bronx public hospital. I was raced to the casualty
department by a friend when I was overcome by sudden and searing head
pain. Unable to walk or talk, I slipped unnoticed to the floor in the
hospital corridor and lay there while my terrified friend tried to
convince staff that I needed a trolley and a doctor. There I passed the
next six hours in and out of consciousness, invisible and undiagnosed.
It was only at the intervention of another friend, an emergency
specialist from a Brooklyn hospital, that I was finally checked,
medicated and billed for $1800.00.

Had I needed help to
complete the paperwork there was assistance available in
English/Spanish, English/Chinese and English/Portuguese. There was even
English/English for illiterate patients, the rapid growth group. Twenty
three million American adults are functionally illiterate including 13
per cent of all seventeen-year-olds while the education system dumbs
down to accommodate them. That’s one way. Cuban illiteracy was reduced
from 40 per cent to zero over a ten year period. That’s another way.

obsessive, hysterical, tyrannical embargo imposed by the US is a naked
political action which aims to sideline Cuba’s extraordinary social
achievements. New Zealand’s Ministry of Education is currently
implementing a strategy developed in collaboration with Cuban
educationalists to achieve adult literacy in poor Maori and islander
communities. Venezuela adopted the programme and reduced its illiteracy
rate by one million people in six months. Both had the political will
of their governments in common.

The World Bank, whose core
function is to improve the lives of the poor, has never given
assistance, advice or aid to Cuba. Plus, its own current bank
indicators reveal that Cuba is living proof that economic growth is not
a pre-condition to improving the lives of its people. Two old World
Bank hymns out the window.

‘Beautiful work!’ My Manhattan
internist approved as he snipped the stitches from my forehead.
‘Trained well but so poorly paid. They’d earn more driving a cab.’ He
was still scratching his head blankly when I left the surgery and
headed for the Korean day spa to be made presentable again.

the footpath outside the spa was a homeless woman in her sixties
sitting on a blanket with a plastic ground sheet surrounded by assorted
packages and bags. I offered her my just lit cigarette before going
inside and she responded with a non sequitur about Simone de Beauvoir,
the male chromosome and concern for my head wound. Street life had
coarsened her features but there was an unmistakable gentility in her
hand movements and her speech bore traces of a Hoch Berlin education.

hour later I emerged barefooted to dry my newly pedicured nails and buy
a coffee. I came back with two cappuccinos in paper cups and sat down
on the blanket beside her while she rabbited on about the dangers of
smoking in anger and how New Yorkers are Albert Camus’ contemporary
outsiders. On my other side were my new $600 Prada boots that I was
road testing ahead of the winter snow.

We had just finished
our coffee when a rather handsome, well dressed man approached. He
paused, looked at us, smiled warmly and with an elegant, discreet
gesture popped a $5 bill into my empty cup. We laughed like girls,
gleeful and knowing.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.