HAVANA (AP) — Twenty-six patients at Cuba’s largest hospital for the mentally ill died this week during a cold snap, the government said Friday.
Human rights leaders cited negligence and a lack of resources as factors in the deaths, and the Health Ministry launched an investigation that it said could lead to criminal proceedings.
A Health Ministry communique read on state television blamed “prolonged low temperatures that fell to 38 degrees Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) in Boyeros,” the neighborhood where Havana’s Psychiatric Hospital is located.
It said most of the deaths were from natural causes such as old age, respiratory infections and complications from chronic diseases including cancer and cardiovascular problems.
The statement came in response to reports from the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights that at least 24 mental patients died of hypothermia this week, and that the hospital did not do enough to protect them from the cold because of problems such as faulty windows.
Commission head Elizardo Sanchez said that so many patients dying of hypothermia was “absurd in a tropical country” and claimed the deaths could have been prevented if the government had granted long-standing requests from international aid groups to tour Cuba’s medical facilities, including the capital’s 2,500-bed mental hospital.
Such cold weather is unusual in sun-drenched Cuba: Temperatures in and around Havana rarely drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), even in January, the country’s coldest month, according to the Meteorological Institute. Still, the Health Ministry said a commission created to investigate the deaths has already identified various deficiencies at the hospital.
Communist Cuba provides free health care to all its citizens but, though the quality of its medical system is celebrated in leftist circles around Latin America, it is also plagued by shortages. Patients are expected to bring their own sheets and towels and sometimes their own food during hospital stays.
The government blames the shortages on the U.S. trade embargo, though the embargo does not prevent the direct sale of medicine or medical supplies to the island.
(This version CORRECTS that the government statement came in response to the human rights statement, instead of collaborating it. ADDS details.)