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Truth, Lies and Deception Over Cuba's Embargo

Is it true that Washington’s policies have left Cubans both sick and hungry?
By Asier Andrés
  • Doctors at work at Pando Ferrer hospital in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
    Doctors at work at Pando Ferrer hospital in Havana, Cuba. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On April 6, US state department official Michael Kozak sparked a Twitter storm after tweeting that since 1992, “billions had been authorised to export medicines and medical equipment to Cuba,” with millions of dollars worth sent to the island in 2019 alone.

He was bombarded with replies by Cuban ambassadors stationed all over the world, accusing him of lying and manipulating information. US officials also weighed in, expressing their own radically opposed views. 

It was a perfect example of how representatives of both countries engage in arguments around the decades-long embargo in which neither side seems interested in discussing the facts. 

The US sees the economic sanctions against Cuba as a selective punishment aimed at the military élite that controls the island that can also serve as an incentive to promote democratic reform. The official discourse in Cuba states that the US embargo imposes hunger and disease on the island. 

The truth is not so simple. While it is true that the embargo allows for the export of food products and medical supplies is allowed with a proper license, this does not always equate to what actually arrives in Cuba.

While the figures Kozak used on April 6 may be accurate, they have likely been manipulated by the embargo’s bureaucracy.   

In a recent article, Cubatrade – a US organisation that promotes trade with the island –explained that the licenses allows a certain amount of exports.  To avoid having to request another license to exceed the agreed quota, US exporters prefer to make higher estimates. 

The figures Kozak used to suggest that the US sells large quantities of food and medicines to Cuba related to the value of the licenses.

Last year, he published a tweet in which he said that between 2018 and 2019, the US authorised exports to Cuba 12 billion dollars, to illustrate the fact that “the US embargo is not responsible for the food shortages in Cuba”.

However, total exports to Cuba in 2018 amounted to nearly six billion dollars. It could not have been possible for Cuba to import 12 billion dollars worth of food from the US in two years. 

The official Cuban narrative that the US denies Cuba access to medicines is not true either.

Even though the trade in medical supplies between the two countries is small, it does exist and has been growing. According to US Trade, from 1992 until 2019, donations of medicines to Cuba by individuals and organisations alike reached 51 million dollars, while exports amounted to 34 million dollars.  

In addition, while in theory Cuba can buy any medical supplies from the US, in practice the embargo laws act as a deterrent. The Cubatrade article noted that there were at least two obstacles that prevent Cuba from importing medical equipment from the US. 

One was the perception among companies that obtaining an export license was complicated. The other problem was the fear among business people that would not be able to receive their sales, revenue because US banks tend to be extremely cautious when it comes to processing any transactions involving Cuba. 

Then there is the difficulty Havana has obtaining hard currencies to be able to trade, the reason why it prefers to deal with China or Spain, countries that offer Cuba long-term credit. 

In its most recent report published on the embargo, the Cuban government does not mention these mechanisms that prevent the country from buying goods from the US. It only says that the US is an “attractive” market due to its prices and close geographical location, while blaming the embargo for making it impossible to buy goods from there.

The same report states that between 2018 and 2019, Cuba sent 57 requests for medical supplies to pharmaceutical companies in the US. Havana said that these companies either did not answer their requests or said the embargo prevented them from exporting to Cuba. 

Again, this does not show the whole picture.

These products included state-of-the-art advanced drugs used to treat particular diseases, such as several types of cancer, as well as products such as heart valves or genetic diagnostic tools.

The report uses the example of Pfizer’s Sutinibib, used in patients with kidney cancer, noting that every year they had some 20 candidates for this treatment. It also included an aortic valve which can be implanted using a less invasive surgical procedure than usual that would benefit an estimated 70 patients on the island. Cuba decided to buy this valve from Boston Scientific, but officials reported that the company never replied.

However, the report did not mention if there were alternatives for these treatments, or whether the relevant patients will now go without treatment.

Sutinibib, for example, has several alternatives including Pazonabib, manufactured by Swiss laboratory Novartis. A number of countries that trade with Cuba, such as China and Russia, make aortic valves.  

In remarks made to the Associated Press, Lázaro Silva, vice-president of Medicuba – the state company in Cuba that imports medical supplies– offered a more precise version of how the embargo affects the health system.

“Buying what we need in the US would be more beneficial to us because it is a market that is closer to us,” Silva explained. 

His statement contrasts with the usual bombastic remarks typical of the Cuban government rhetoric. The effects and mechanisms of the embargo are complex and confusing; and manipulated by both sides to suit their own political purposes.

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