The Cuban Health Minister who, until then, had confined herself to boring “blah blah” statistics, suddenly said something arresting: “So, Minister, what is your policy about re-using bandages in the NHS?”

In 1996 one of the less onerous duties of the UK Minister for Health – my job at the time – was to gabble on to foreign opposite numbers who drifted through the Department of Health HQ, Richmond House, politely nodding acquiescence about shared tribulations – and batting away ill-concealed pleas for “the meaningful strengthening of mutual relationships”, i.e. opening up the NHS’ straightened cheque book.

Cuban healthcare, much lauded as an example of Castro’s enlightened rule, was, if UK lefties were to be believed, much superior to ours. Health Questions in the Commons frequently flushed out the usual opposition suspects – I can’t recall whether Jeremy Corbyn was one of them, but they all seemed to sport beards – droning on about “Cuba has better primary care than the NHS”; “Cuba educates more doctors than most developed countries”, “The Minister should be ashamed, Cuba has …..”. You get the drift; think George Galloway on hallucinatory products.

So, when my opposite number in one question revealed the stark position of her service the scales of propaganda myth fell away. I probed further. Number of doctors? Well, many of them were seeking useful international experience (had been frogmarched to Angola); only good value medicine was made available to the population (no budget for anything new that worked); brand new hospitals (yes, but minus the advanced diagnostic kit we take for granted here).

She was in a pickle and when I later visited Cuba in a private capacity (enforced by the voters in 1997) I found out that her “pickle” applied to almost everything we gullible folk had been fed about Cuba since the day Harold Wilson sold the poor beggars British Leyland buses in the 60’s – whatever did he have against the Cubans?

For starters, the hire car – one of only a handful – was fitted with red “tourist” plates and could not be parked outside a Cuban home at nighttime, else the residents would be visited by the police the next day. It was a mundane Toyota, but when parked attracted crowds who wanted to sit behind the wheel, marveling at… the dashboard!

When on the move it attracted all sorts of hitchhikers and I obeyed the local custom to pick up when possible. It was an illuminating courtesy. No rider would speak until it became clear that I had nothing to do with the security forces. Some remained tightlipped, but the three fishermen with their smelly catch in buckets who jumped in north of Trinidad astonishingly warmed to the theme of Margaret Thatcher.

There were no signposts, including on motorway entrances, which often resulted in travelling the wrong way. Satan America was to be denied any assistance in reaching Havana in the event of Bay of Pigs II. Er, don’t they have GPS? The motorway system dates back to the days of Soviet influence and doubles as potential runways for military aircraft in time of war. One wrong turn and I was on an actual runway of a disused airfield flanked by a rusting MIG on a plinth. 1962 suddenly seemed closer.

The outskirts of every habitation boasted a whitewashed party “HQ” plastered with inevitable slogans. It soon became clear why some people looked well fed, others thin. The nomenclatura who boasted membership of the whitewashed building all prospered, others went short. Stepping into a “local” store banned to tourists (risky) was to be confronted with a grating behind which weekly rations were dispensed, down to minute scrapings of toothpaste and soap. In an island of seeming plenty rationing was a ruthless political weapon of subjection.

Always a bad sign, there were three currencies; the Cuban $ – which tourists are banned from using; the Tourist $, at a rip-off conversion rate; and the US $, novel then and prone to running out at ATMs. Queues formed when the currency truck was due to arrive. Banks were so edgy that they transacted business on a strictly one to one basis. My wife and I were not allowed through the secure door together. We are not Bonnie and Clyde. But, come to think of it, I’ve never been in a bank in the UK with my wife, so maybe they’re the same.

Omnipresent was the sense of living in a Kafka novel; the police silently beating up beggars in a Havana square; the phalanx of authorized “pedlars” released at noon from a dilapidated stucco building; the taxi driver in the 47 Chevrolet who could not drop us off at our hotel as he was being watched; the “private” restaurant in the garden of a Havana home where conversation was stilted lest the coveted licence be revoked at a whim; the Russian era “resort” in the mountains where we were treated to cold macaroni slapped onto our plates by a charmless Babushka who had forgotten to go home in 1990; and where only Cubans who had received “productivity awards” were allowed to dally. We met three gleeful honeymoon couples who had outperformed on the cigar production lines pigging out on the cold macaroni.

What the regime giveth, the regime can all too gratuitously take away.

On the last day we bumped into an American lecturer travelling on an education visa. These were the days when only left-inclined US academics found it possible to get visas to enter Cuba. Her rose-tinted spectacle had fallen off when she prosaically fell down a Havana pothole.

She was, to put it mildly “disillusioned” – and waxed eloquently about the dilapidated A&E she attended, being kept waiting endlessly, the drabness of the “private” facilities she was entitled to on her Amex insurance – “Whatever can it be like for Cubans?” Then she thrust out her heavily bandaged leg to my wife, a doctor, and asked about when the dressing should be renewed. I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the Cuban Health Minister.

May the passing of the architect of the evil system imposed upon a beautiful country and tolerant people herald a fresh start – and plentiful, fresh bandages.

Gerald Malone was Minister for Health (in England and Wales, not Cuba) 1994 – 1997; Tourist 2000.