Island suffers as US-Cuba embargo continues to batter its people

Yaliuska López Vergara, 28, hugs her 6-year-old son, Brian, who recently completed chemotherapy.
Photo by Christian Triunfo

Story by Hannah Bernstein and Ysabelle Kempe ·

HAVANA, Cuba — On Saturday nights, Havana sings. There’s side-stepping salsa, hip-grinding reggaetón and even fist-pumping American pop songs. Their rhythms combine and drift into the streets, floating over the heads of taxi drivers who wait eagerly for people stumbling around to find the next song of the night.

But on the evening of May 12, the country was silent. For two days, music and the sale of alcohol was illegal. The island was in an official state of mourning and an unofficial state of shock. A domestic flight from Havana to Holguín in eastern Cuba had crashed into a field the day before, just after departing from the airport in Havana. Three out of 113 people survived the crash, but only one is still alive.

“Thank God it fell where it did, because a little farther up there was a school,” said Yaliuska López Vergara, a 28-year-old who grew up near Holguín and spoke through a translator. “This is probably the worst plane accident I’ve seen since I’ve been alive.”

The plane crash is one of many debilitating effects the American embargo has on life inside Cuba. The embargo, which bans trade between Cuba and the United States, makes it incredibly difficult for Cuba to get ahold of new planes or parts it needs. This plane, a loan from a Mexican company, was nearly 40 years old. But the influence of the embargo, referred to as the blockade by the Cuban people, ripples out much further than most foreigners realize.

While the embargo is intended to pressure the Cuban government into democracy, ultimately, it is the people who suffer its effects.

For example, Roberto Sánchez Medina, an environmental researcher at the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation’s Program of Nature and Community in Havana, said without the capital that foreign investment could bring to Cuba, many sectors of the economy cannot modernize.

“There’s no one technology that can solve everything,” Medina acknowledged through a translator. “The most important thing is to have access to a selection of technology and be able to choose.”

The lack of money and foreign access at the governmental level trickles down to every aspect of Cuban life and culture. Nowhere is that more clear than inside the home of Vergara in Marianao, a southwestern suburb of Havana. She’s a housewife living with five other relatives including her husband, Alejandro Rodríguez, and their 6-year-old son, Brian.

Alejandro Rodríguez, 26, operates a tattoo business from his front porch. Through his tattooing, he’s made friends abroad that follow his work and life on Facebook. When his 6-year-old son, Brian, was diagnosed with cancer, those friends sent medical supplies to Cuba for his treatment.
Photo by Christian Triunfo

“Suffering from the blockade is separate from the political system,” Vergara said. “Why? Because the suffering of the Cuban people is in the deficiencies we have — with respect to health, with respect to education, with respect to food.”

In 2015, Brian was diagnosed with a primary immunodeficiency, meaning his immune system lacks important antibodies to protect him against disease. Then, just a year later, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He completed chemotherapy in December 2017 and his prognosis is good.

But although health care is free in socialist Cuba, the lack of resources meant it was not easy to get to this point.

“There’s a lot of people who have the same illness as my son that can’t get sufficient resources,” Vergara said. “They’re affected by the lack of medication and supplies in hospitals. There’s a lot of things that would help us that we could get, were it not for the blockade.”

Video reported and produced by Ysabelle Kempe

A relationship, still frozen

It was 1962, three years since Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, and tensions between the United States and the island were getting worse. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States had already imposed two partial sanctions on Cuba, one on arms and another later on all goods except food and medication.

Cuba was trading openly with the Soviet Union, but, after the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 when the CIA attempted to overthrow the new government led by Fidel Castro, the island officially aligned itself with the Socialist bloc. As the United States and the Soviet Union had been locked in the Cold War for more than 15 years, Cuba’s alliance with the American enemy made its government a threat, as well.

Into the 1970s and 1980s, not much changed. But then, the Soviet Union fell in 1991, and with it, Cuba lost its largest trading partner. Cubans call this time in their history the Special Period — the country’s imports in 1993 were a quarter of what they had been in 1989, said José Bedia, a Cuban historian from Centro de Estudios Martianos in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana.

“It was like being in a time of war,” Bedia said through a translator. “Everyone wanted to ensure survival. Even when you had money, there was nothing to buy.”

Some say the Special Period lasted until around 2004, but Bedia said he’s not sure it ever ended. Food is still rationed. Goods are still scarce. With the embargo in place, the country has been unable to completely dig itself out of the hole left by the Soviet Union.

“All our commercial relationships were with the Soviet Union,” Bedia said, who made the equivalent of $2.50 a month during this era because the exchange rate was so low. “Relationships with international organizations ended by 1972. Now in the ‘90s, we had to find a way to go back to reaching the rest of the world, so we could open the market and improve our economy.”

Economic development, however, was difficult, if not impossible, and remains so. The United States continues to operate under the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 that allows the U.S. government to impose sanctions beyond the island to countries that defy the U.S. embargo and engage in trade with Cuba.

When a ship docks in Cuba, for example, it legally cannot dock in American territory for a full six months as penalty. Few traders are eager to send a ship to Cuba and then wait months to access the far larger American market.

But the frozen relations between Cuba and the United States finally began to thaw in April 2009, when President Barack Obama eased the travel restrictions to Cuba. In 2014, Obama announced American intentions to reestablish relations with the small country only 90 miles from Florida’s shore.

A bookmark listing problems about the blockade. Photo by Ysabelle Kempe

Obama and Raúl Castro, the president at the time, met for the first time in April 2015. A year later, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to travel to Cuba since 1928. Eight days before the end of his term, Obama ended a contentious immigration policy that gave Cuban migrants legal status only if they reached U.S. soil.

The blockade had already lost international support, said Luis René Fernández Tabío, an economics professor at the University of Havana. At the United Nations in 2017, Tabío said, 191 countries, excluding the United States and Israel, voted in favor of the Cuban resolution to end the blockade.

But it did not last. Then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump was discussing a rollback of the Obama-era regulations on Cuba even before he was elected. A year later, he reinstated travel and business restrictions. He also cut personnel by 60 percent in the U.S. embassy in Havana, and evicted 15 Cuban staff members from the island’s Washington D.C. embassy after an alleged sonic attack in Havana last year left more than 20 Americans unwell.

Things are still changing. In January, Trump announced the formation of an American taskforce to investigate ways to bring more Internet access to Cuba. Despite a formal protest submitted by the Cuban government, accusing the United States of interfering with their sovereignty, the group met in February.

Ultimately, Tabío sees the United States and Cuba as inherently connected, both geographically and culturally. The relations, however, need to change before that connection can grow.

“Cubans want to be treated with respect. We are not inferior,” Tabío said. “I think most of the Cuban people love the United States and love the American people … but we want to be treated as equals.”

Cut off from the international community

The blockade seeps into every aspect of political, academic, cultural and social life in Cuba, from medicine and food, research and technology, to hardware and equipment, entertainment and media.

Obtaining visas for conferences or research opportunities in the States is a constant obstacle for Cuban scientists. They are also unable to gain access to U.S.-patented technology and data.

Medina, the environmental researcher, has seen his own work disrupted by the blockade. He said the international community’s unwillingness to form research or business relationships with the island prevents Cuba from generating enough money to invest in renewable energy, for example. Right now, their foreign scientific investments mainly come from China, Canada and England — countries fairly untouchable by the United States.

“The blockade has a great impact on renewable energy here — first of all, the lack of capital,” Medina said. “Cuba has no capital to invest in renewable energy sources and because of the blockade, we can’t ask for international aid.”

A sign in Havana reads “The Blockade, the longest genocide in history.”
Photo by Christian Triunfo

Cuba is actually legally barred from seeking this international aid, according to a clause in the Helms-Burton Act. It states that the country is not allowed into the International Monetary Fund, the International Finance Corporation, the Inter-American Development Bank and more. If these institutions choose to provide assistance to Cuba, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury will withhold a payment of the same amount.

“We don’t belong to any important international financial institutions in the world, and that’s in part because [of] the Cuban government’s criteria,” said Saira Pons Perez, a professor at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy in Havana. “But the main restriction right now is actually the embargo.”

Similarly, hospitals in Cuba can’t access equipment produced by U.S. companies like St. Jude Medical or Boston Scientific, which includes pacemakers for heart conditions. Even in 2006, when the United Nations planned to provide Cuba with antiretroviral drugs to fight AIDS, the makers of those drugs were unable to violate the rules of the blockade. Until medications are released in generic versions, which can take years, it’s inaccessible to the 20,000 HIV-positive people in Cuba. While Cuba does produce its own versions, they may not have access to the latest breakthroughs.

“This embargo or blockade is to suffocate the Cuban people,” Tabío said, “until they say, ‘I cannot stand any more.’”

A family feels the impact

Rodríguez and Vergara are just like many parents in the United States whose children have cancer. They worry endlessly, they sit up for nights on end next to Brian’s hospital bed and they are always grateful to the doctors providing their son with care. But they have the added stress of living in a country where the medical resources they need are scarce or incredibly expensive.

When Brian was still in treatment, he needed an operation that involved the use of intravenous lines, or IVs. The IVs available in Cuba, however, are “low-quality, hard and really painful,” as described by Rodríguez. And that’s if he can even find one.

He adapted to the deficiency, as Cubans do. He put out a plea online, asking anyone who might see it to send flexible, comfortable IVs to Cuba. Rodríguez’s tourist friends saw the ad and immediately agreed to send the products — one from the United States and two from Brazil.

When the Cuban doctors saw the IVs, however, they were puzzled. Although trained in renowned Cuban medical institutes, they had no experience with the soft, modern lines.

Photo 4
Brian plays a game on his tablet in the living room of their family home. Photo by Christian Triunfo

“Even the doctors here were like, ‘Whoa, what do we do with this? We’ve never seen an IV before’,” said Rodríguez, a large bearded man whose arms are covered with tattoos he did himself. “They had to sit down, study it, really understand.”

Through his tattoo business, Rodríguez has many friends abroad who can help him get some of the resources his family needs to take care of Brian. Most Cuban families are not as lucky.

“The hospital did so much considering the small amount of resources they have, and they honestly would have done more, but they just can’t sometimes,” Rodríguez said.

Brian is now on the upswing of his treatment. In February 2018, friends and family celebrated his sixth birthday and the end of his chemotherapy. He is a happy and boisterous child who tugs on his mother’s shirt asking to play games on her iPhone and draws on his walls in crayon, trying to emulate his father’s artistic skills. His hair has grown back and he attends class with the rest of the children in the neighborhood.

“He’s one of the smartest kids in class,” said Vergara, smiling softly with pride. “He’s only gone two months of the whole year this year, but he’s already one of the smartest kids in class.”

Despite these challenges, Vergara and Rodríguez said adaptation is the key to survival in Cuba.

“Resources are the most important thing,” Vergara said. “It’s a waiting game until the Cuban government has a better relationship with the world.”

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