The U.S. Embargo and the Wrath of God
by Juan Gonzalez
In These Times, March 8, 1998
Havana: Gilberto Duran Torres couldn't devote much attention
to Pope John Paul lI's historic visit here in January. While Cuban
journalists and thousands of foreign journalists recorded the
pope's every move, Duran and the other doctors at Calixto Garcia
Hospital, Cuba's largest and most prestigious medical center,
spent another hair-raising week quietly concocting their own miracles-a
string of patchwork procedures to keep their patients alive.
Duran is chief of the intermediate care unit. He has worked
at the hospital for 25 years, but nowadays he watches helplessly
as the country's awesome cradle-to-grave, free medical system
slowly disintegrates. Duran's department, for instance, is making
do with artificial respirators that are more than 20 years old.
. . . "We should have at least 12 for my unit," he says.
"We have far fewer, and they are always breaking down. When
one goes, we don't have the parts to fix it, so we have to search
around the city, find a hospital that's not using theirs, and
transport it here." So much of the world's advanced medical
equipment and drugs are manufactured by U.S. firms that the three-decade-old
American embargo is now literally killing Cubans, according to
a 1997 report issued by the American Association for World Health
(AAWH) following a year-long investigation.
Back in Washington, the proponents of the embargo insist that
needed medical supplies can still get to Cuba. But the 300 page
AAWH report, "Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact of
the U.S. Embargo on Health and Nutrition in Cuba," provides
startling documentation of dozens of cases in which Cuban hospitals
could not secure the medicine and equipment they needed because
of the sharp restrictions imposed by the 1992 Cuban Democracy
Dr. Julian Ruiz, a surgeon at Calixto Garcia, recounts his
15-day search last September for a Z-Stent Introducer, a small
contraption that he needed to operate on a man with colon cancer.
Not one could be found in the country. The manufacturer of the
Z-Stent, Wilson Cooke Medical Inc. of Winston-Salem, N.C., refused
to sell it to the Cubans. Ruiz' staff, scouring the world, finally
found a Z-Stent they could buy in Mexico. By that time, the man's
cancer had spread.
Exacerbating the shortages are takeovers of foreign firms
by U.S. pharmaceutical companies. In 1995, for example, Upjohn
Co. merged with Pharmacia, a major Swedish drug company that had
been supplying Cuba with millions of dollars worth of chemotherapy
drugs, growth hormones and equipment for its medical labs. Within
three months, Pharmacia closed its Havana office and stopped all
That same year, Nunc, a Danish firm that supplied Cuba with
materials for HIV and hepatitis screening tests, was absorbed
by Sybron International of Wisconsin. Eight days after the merger,
Nunc executives notified Cuba by fax: "Much to our regret,
we have to inform you that unfortunately our cooperation of many
years has to be terminated.... In future, we therefore have to
follow the directions laid down by the U.S. Government in relation
Nothing has drawn the Catholic Church and the Cuban government
closer together than their mutual opposition to the U.S. blockade
of medicine and food supplies to Cuba's people.
"Even in warfare, you don't bomb hospitals and schools,"
says Patrick Sullivan, the pastor of a church in Santa Clara and
the only American priest permanently stationed in the country.
A Cuban official in charge of finding and paying for food
from abroad recounted her frustration with the embargo. "To
ship a thousand tons of powdered milk from New Zealand, I must
pay $150,000, when bringing the same amount from Miami would only
cost me $25,000," she says.
While the U.S. government forces Cuba to pay six times more
than necessary for children to drink milk and shuts off the supply
for medical screening tests, it scurries to sell more Boeing planes
to China, to open new Nike factories in Vietnam and even finds
ways to ship food to North Korea. The last time anybody looked,
these were socialist countries too, at least in name.
After all his homilies criticizing the lack of individual
freedom and the evils of communism, the 77-year-old pope, no less
a dictator within his church than the 71 -year-old Castro is within
his party, still managed in his parting words to condemn the U.S.
embargo for striking "the population indiscriminately, making
it ever more difficult for the weakest to enjoy the bare essentials
of decent living."
Washington's embargo has now incurred the wrath of God. Can
it hope to survive much longer?
Human Rights, Justice, Reform