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Coronavirus Was The Last Straw For Cubans And Their Calls Remain Unanswered

By Rashel Chipi |

July 11th marked a long-awaited day for the Cuban diaspora. Thousands of Cubans throughout the island took part in massive protests, for the first time since the Cuban revolution in 1959. Videos of Cubans flooding the streets was a miracle for generations of Cuban exiles who had long lost hope of such a sight. In the protests, Cubans chanted for “food,” “freedom,” “medicine,” and “democracy.” However, these demands have been skewed and politicized beyond measure. In truth, for every person who claimed that Cubans that day demanded more so “food,” than “democracy,” or vice versa, there were Cubans in those crowds, for whom these were deciding factors. After all, the 62 year-long Castro regime has given those with a tie to Cuba multiple grievances, ranging from lack of political freedom to access to bread. However, it is important to acknowledge that the lack of fundamental medical supplies, in the face of a pandemic, was the tipping point for such protests to have occurred. Over a month has passed since July 11th and discourse on what freedom looks like for Cubans has overshadowed an urgent question of medical crisis on the island. While ideological conversations continue, Cubans on the island are on the verge of despair and their global visibility is little to none.

In order to understand the current conditions of the Cuban medical system, it is first important to learn about the issues that have historically plagued the island. Cuba’s economy never fully recovered from the famous “Special Period” in the 90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the island has experienced material shortages ever since. In addition, censorship has been a consistent threat to Cubans with over 100 political prisoners reported in 2020, and that number has more than tripled since July 11th. The pandemic has exacerbated such scarcity and political tensions by prompting a dollar crisis and forcing the country to close its borders to tourism, which is the country’s second highest source of income. The medical system has waned alongside the economy, which alone is not unique to Cuba during the pandemic, but the stakes for Cuba on the global stage are certainly unique.

Medical affairs have always been politicized in Cuba’s history because they have become a key metric for the success of the Cuban government, which in turn, has been used as a legitimiser for communism. The pandemic has highlighted such hyper politicization as American media lost no time in using concerning medical situations as either a segue to preach about the failures of communism or to sermonize about the evils of the U.S embargo placed on Cuba. In focusing on discourse about the competence of the Cuban government, the media is contributing to making Cubans’ health an afterthought. Daniel A. Rodriguez, a professor at Brown University, has observed the Cuban medical system for about 20 years and made a clear-cut statement regarding healthcare in Cuba: “You can’t understand the protests outside of the government’s failure to fulfill what the people had come to agree was one of its minimum tasks.”

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states that, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including. . . medical care”. While many countries, including the US, do not provide healthcare through a public system, the Cuban government does. In fact, expectations for the Cuban government to provide public healthcare was fostered by the government itself as a promise of the Cuban revolution. They not only pledged to provide healthcare to their citizens, but also to civilians abroad. To fulfill such responsibility, Cubans have the most doctors per capita in the world. Following countless natural disasters, Cuban medical missions have provided a viable alternative to “disaster tourism” in the Global South. The Henry Reeve Brigade, a group of several thousand Cuban medical specialists, was formed in 2005, and has assisted in Chile, Pakistan, Peru, and countless more.[1] At the start of the pandemic, Cuba sent brigades to Andorra, Italy, Venezuela, and Jamaica. Such a prestigious international reputation in medicine makes it difficult for many to believe that the Cuban government could be culpable in the medical neglect of its own people.

Doubts about the government’s faults are rationalized through the U.S embargo, which is often solely blamed for Cuba’s inability to acquire resources, including medical supplies. However, this logic does not account for restrictions established by the Cuban government, which further limit civilians’ access to supplies. Just after July 11th, the Cuban government responded to the protests by lifting restrictions on travelers bringing food and medicine to the island. The policy allows travellers to bring a larger amount of supplies and lifts a tax they previously paid for importing those supplies. This new policy will likely have a low impact since few flights currently operate from Miami to Cuba. A Trump era policy in 2019 banned all U.S flights to Cuba except for Havana. More importantly, it bears the question of why such a restriction existed in the first place. Rather than accepting humanitarian aid, which would save countless lives, this policy places the burden on Cubans abroad, to desperately shove as many supplies as they can into suitcases, to save their relatives on the island.

Yasmin, a Cuban immigrant in Miami who is also my mother, has been sending packages and remittances to her family overseas for over two decades. Since the start of the pandemic, she has, “practically not been able to help them.” When asked how she has been able to send help, she responded: “I can only send them money here and there. Before the pandemic, I used to send them packages, through Miami Cubans, whose business was to travel to Cuba and transport packages. They have since stopped because the government obligated all travelers to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, which makes the business unprofitable for them. I recently sent a package of medication for my family through Rexport Cargo, a shipping agency, but the package won’t arrive for another two months. One day, my sister who lives on the island, told me over the phone, ‘there is so much desperation in the streets, it looks like a war zone.’ Us Cubans are really frustrated because we are so close to our family yet so far because we cannot give them the help they need.”

The collapse of the medical system occurred in parallel to the country opening its borders to international travel on November 15th, 2020, which allowed a fifteen-fold spike in cases across the country for the year 2021. This concerning increase came at a time when the Cuban hospital system is experiencing more material scarcity than usual and medical professionals on the island are inundated with the rise of patients. An online movement in Matanzas, using the hashtag #SOSMatanzas, has arisen in response to the abysmal conditions in hospitals. Civilians have taken to their Facebook pages to show hospitals, completely void of basic sanitation and supplies including food, pillows, and sheets. Some have even reported cadavers sitting in their homes for 24 hours before anyone could pick them up. The movement urges for assistance from anyone willing to help in other provinces and internationally. The Cuban government dismissed these efforts as a promotion of U.S intervention, a common tactic used to gaslight Cubans who experience human rights violations and detract from the government taking accountability for its inaction.

The Cuban government’s insistence on proving self-sufficiency has cost its civilians’ precious time and lives. At the time this article was written, Covid-19 Cuba Data reports over 500,000 cases and 4000 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The government has opted to make their own vaccines through BioCubaFarma, Cuba’s biotechnology organization, instead of accepting foreign vaccines, which were developed sooner. This delay put Cuban civilians in a compromising situation as Cuba reopened its borders. Additionally, the government has refused to provide their vaccines’ progress to the WHO’s Covid-19 vaccine tracking system. BioCubaFarma has developed the Abdala vaccine and Soberana 02 vaccine, which both require three doses. The need for three doses per civilian exacerbated a syringe deficit on the island. Fortunately, the Cuban government did accept a donation of 1.7 million syringes from Global Health Partners, an organization from New York.

Earlier this summer, Yale’s Cuban-American Undergraduate Student Association (CAUSA) released a statement in response to the July 11th protests. The statement called for humanitarian aid, among other demands. Kelly Gouin UG '22, the President of CAUSA, was raised on the island and when asked about her interactions with Cuba’s healthcare system, she responded, “I can confirm the dire need that Cubans face. It is true that the system is universal and free of charge, as people often bring up while defending communism, however, the lack of basic goods and medicine, the decaying state of the infrastructure, and consequently, the diminished quality of service result in a system unable to meet the people’s needs. So yes, you might not need to pay or have insurance coverage for your otherwise $20,000 surgery that you absolutely need, but you might also not get the surgery at all because there is no running water at the hospital, or there are no sterile products to operate with.” Gouin added, “I don’t think Cubans lack the talent or knowledge to handle this crisis to the same level of relative success other countries have achieved, but they do lack the resources, and unfortunately, that can make a huge difference.”

As material conditions worsen on the island, the most important thing Yalies and other outsiders can do is listen to Cubans of all identities and connections to the island. Cuba is fast-approaching a turning point in its history and everyone must keep their eyes peeled for when the political pleas overshadow the survival of Cubans on the island. As Professor Rodriguez said, “It will be interesting to see where the Cuban government goes with this in four to five years.” The question remains of whether the Cuban government will accept humanitarian aid and whether their vaccines prove successful and lucrative abroad. The legitimacy of the Cuban government will depend on its next steps to address this medical crisis, but more importantly, the lives of Cubans on the island will depend on those next steps.

Writer’s Reflection

As I immerse myself in the world of media, I realize the importance of incorporating context, specifically through history, when discussing new developments. The moment history is introduced into a current-day discussion on any matter, nuance and complexity inevitably form. All topics regarding Cuba run especially close to home for me since I am a first-generation Cuban-American. These stories and issues shaped my upbringing and my relationship to my family on the island.

During my first semester at Yale, I completed the course, “Historical Perspectives on Global Health,” and for our semester-long project, I created a virtual bank of articles recording coronavirus developments in Cuba as well as sources that detailed Cuba’s medical history. At the time, I did not realize that I was trying to present current-day news through a historical lense. This article gave me an opportunity to solidify all these connections, which had been forming for the past year. It was the marriage between my personal history and journalistic aspirations.

Cuban medical history is extremely complex and cannot be adequately explained in under 2000 words. I encourage you to read through the sources I have linked throughout the article and to speak with Cubans of all identities. Cuban medical affairs are ubiquitous on the island, which makes it likely that a Cuban you speak to will have a story to tell. While I searched for sources that interviewed Cubans on the island, it was important for me to remember that many Cubans on the island, who choose to speak up, may not feel safe enough to express themselves fully. Some Cubans may refrain from speaking at all. Such is the case with several of my relatives on the island. These limitations are important to keep in mind as we will never fully understand what it is like to live on the island.


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