The Gift of Health: Socialist Medical Practice and Shifting Material and Moral Economies in Post-Soviet Cuba


Drawing on ethnographic data collected over 13 months of fieldwork in family doctor clinics in Havana from 2004 to 2005, I examine the shifting moral and material economies of Cuban socialist medical practice. In both official ideology and in daily practice, the moral economy of ideal socialist medicine is based on an ethos of reciprocal social exchange—that is, the gift—that informs not only doctors’ relationships with the Cuban state and with individual patients but also the state’s policies of international medical service to developing nations. The social and economic upheavals after the fall of t Soviet Union, however, have compelled both the state and individual doctors to operate in a new local and global economy. The gift remains the central metaphor of Cuban medical practice. Nonetheless, as ideologies and practices of gifting and reciprocity encounter an emerging market economy, gifts—whether on the level of the state policies of international humanism or in patient–doctor relations—are open to new significations that highlight the shifting material and moral economies of post-Soviet Cuba.