"Denial of Food and Medicine:

The Impact Of The U.S. Embargo
On The Health And Nutrition In Cuba"

-An Executive Summary-

American Association for World Health Report
Summary of Findings
March 1997

After a year-long investigation, the American Association for World Health has determined that the U.S. embargo of Cuba has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens. As documented by the attached report, it is our expert medical opinion that the U.S. embargo has caused a significant rise in suffering-and even deaths-in Cuba. For several decades the U.S. embargo has imposed significant financial burdens on the Cuban health care system. But since 1992 the number of unmet medical needs patients going without essential drugs or doctors performing medical procedures without adequate equipment-has sharply accelerated. This trend is directly linked to the fact that in 1992 the U.S. trade embargo-one of the most stringent embargoes of its kind, prohibiting the sale of food and sharply restricting the sale of medicines and medical equipment-was further tightened by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act.

A humanitarian catastrophe has been averted only because the Cuban government has maintained a high level of budgetary support for a health care system designed to deliver primary and preventive health care to all of its citizens. Cuba still has an infant mortality rate half that of the city of Washington, D.C.. Even so, the U.S. embargo of food and the de facto embargo on medical supplies has wreaked havoc with the island's model primary health care system. The crisis has been compounded by the country's generally weak economic resources and by the loss of trade with the Soviet bloc.

Recently four factors have dangerously exacerbated the human effects of this 37-year-old trade embargo. All four factors stem from little-understood provisions of the U.S. Congress' 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (CDA):

  1. A Ban on Subsidiary Trade: Beginning in 1992, the Cuban Democracy Act imposed a ban on subsidiary trade with Cuba. This ban has severely constrained Cuba's ability to import medicines and medical supplies from third country sources. Moreover, recent corporate buyouts and mergers between major U.S. and European pharmaceutical companies have further reduced the number of companies permitted to do business with Cuba.
  2. Licensing Under the Cuban Democracy Act: The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments are allowed in principle to license individual sales of medicines and medical supplies, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons to mitigate the embargo's impact on health care delivery. In practice, according to U.S. corporate executives, the licensing provisions are so arduous as to have had the opposite effect. As implemented, the licensing provisions actively discourage any medical commerce. The number of such licenses granted-or even applied for since 1992-is minuscule. Numerous licenses for medical equipment and medicines have been denied on the grounds that these exports "would be detrimental to U.S. foreign policy interests."
  3. Shipping Since 1992:The embargo has prohibited ships from loading or unloading cargo in U.S. ports for 180 days after delivering cargo to Cuba. This provision has strongly discouraged shippers from delivering medical equipment to Cuba. Consequently shipping costs have risen dramatically and further constricted the flow of food, medicines, medical supplies and even gasoline for ambulances. From 1993 to 1996, Cuban companies spent an additional $8.7 million on shipping medical imports from Asia, Europe and South America rather than from the neighboring United States.
  4. Humanitarian Aid: Charity is an inadequate alternative to free trade in medicines, medical supplies and food. Donations from U.S. non-governmental organizations and international agencies do not begin to compensate for the hardships inflicted by the embargo on the Cuban public health system. In any case, delays in licensing and other restrictions have severely discouraged charitable contributions from the U.S.

Taken together, these four factors have placed severe strains on the Cuban health system. The declining availability of food stuffs, medicines and such basic medical supplies as replacement parts for thirty-year-old X-ray machines is taking a tragic human toll. The embargo has closed so many windows that in some instances Cuban physicians have found it impossible to obtain life-saving medicines from any source, under any circumstances. Patients have died. In general, a relatively sophisticated and comprehensive public health system is being systematically stripped of essential resources. High-technology hospital wards devoted to cardiology and nephrology are particularly under siege. But so too are such basic aspects of the health system as water quality and food security. Specifically, the AAWH's team of nine medical experts identified the following health problems affected by the embargo:

  1. Malnutrition: The outright ban on the sale of American foodstuffs has contributed to serious nutritional deficits, particularly among pregnant women, leading to an increase in low birth-weight babies. In addition, food shortages were linked to a devastating outbreak of neuropathy numbering in the tens of thousands. By one estimate, daily caloric intake dropped 33 percent between 1989 and 1993.
  2. Water Quality: The embargo is severely restricting Cuba's access to water treatment chemicals and spare-parts for the island's water supply system. This has led to serious cutbacks in supplies of safe drinking water, which in turn has become a factor in the rising incidence of morbidity and mortality rates from water-borne diseases.
  3. Medicines & Equipment: Of the 1,297 medications available in Cuba in 1991, physicians now have access to only 889 of these same medicines - and many of these are available only intermittently. Because most major new drugs are developed by U.S. pharmaceuticals, Cuban physicians have access to less than 50 percent of the new medicines available on the world market. Due to the direct or indirect effects of the embargo, the most routine medical supplies are in short supply or entirely absent from some Cuban clinics.
  4. Medical Information: Though information materials have been exempt from the U.S. trade embargo since 1 988, the AAWH study concludes that in practice very little such information goes into Cuba or comes out of the island due to travel restrictions, currency regulations and shipping difficulties. Scientists and citizens of both countries suffer as a result. Paradoxically, the embargo harms some U.S. citizens by denying them access to the latest advances in Cuban medical research, including such products as Meningitis B vaccine, cheaply produced interferon and streptokinase, and an AIDS vaccine currently under-going clinical trials with human volunteers.

Finally, the AAWH wishes to emphasize the stringent nature of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Few other embargoes in recent history - including those targeting Iran, Libya, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Chile or Iraq - have included an outright ban on the sale of food. Few other embargoes have so restricted medical commerce as to deny the availability of life-saving medicines to ordinary citizens. Such an embargo appears to violate the most basic international charters and conventions governing human rights, including the United Nations charter, the charter of the Organization of American States, and the articles of the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of civilians during wartime.

American Association for World Health
1825 K Street, NW, Suite 1208
Washington, DC 20006
Tel. 202-466-5883 / FAX 202-466-5896
Email: AAWHstaff@aol.com

Full Text of the Report

See also: World Health Organization: Country Profile on Cuba

Cuba Solidarity Homepage

Project USA/Cuba InfoMed