While other disasters occupy the world’s attention, a humanitarian crisis has unfolded in Cuba. It has also unfolded on my phone and email as I learn about it from friends and contacts there in distressing text messages, emails and Whatsapp video chats — when the power is on and the Internet works for them, that is.
Between the pandemic’s chilling effect on travel, Washington’s ideological war on the island nation, and the Cuban government’s own obsession with information control, Canadians and the world are getting scant word of a well-loved, nearby place where food is now scarce, medicines nearly impossible to get, the health system close to collapse, power outages occur almost daily, consumer goods and machine parts are practically impossible to find and inflation runs rampant.
Cuba has largely been out of the news since the unprecedented public protests there on July 11. The protests were probably aided and abetted by the U.S., as the Cuban government claims, but they certainly were fueled by the state of public despair on the island.
“It’s a nightmare. Every minute that passes, the despair increases,” a friend in Santa Clara tells me. (I’m avoiding using the names of my correspondents out of concern they could run afoul of new laws that restrict online dissent.)
"Think only for a minute that you are a Cuban and you think that you have got sick and you know that if it is the COVID (sic), there are no antibiotics so if you get a pneumonia, you do not have medication to lower the fever, you do not have a transport to go to the polyclinic so that you can see a doctor, and it is very possible that you have to wait many hours to be attended by the doctor."
Such health care chaos is shocking to him.
“We had always been a poor country but with a fairly good health system if we compare it with other poor countries. We were not used to seeing or listening to news of so many people sick and dying,” he said.
He is particularly distressed by the number of children and youth infected and the mental health effects of lockdowns that have become tighter and tighter over 18 months.
The pandemic, the collapse of tourism, weather disasters due to climate change and American hostility have created a hellish situation.
My friends wait in line for hours in the hot Cuban sun to get the basics. Black market prices, especially for antibiotics and other medicines, are escalating dramatically. One friend tells me even beans, a dietary staple in Cuba, can cost several dollars a pound. Meat is now a rarity.
Many complain of a growing and worrisome divide between the fairly small number of Cubans who can get foreign currency — harder than ever to get since the U.S. has cut off money transfers and other remittances — and are still able to buy some things and the vast majority who can’t. A lot of consumer goods are only available in stores that don’t accept the national currency used to pay salaries and pensions.
Tourism, the country’s main source of income and employment, has collapsed. Some blame an attempt last winter to revive tourism with triggering the current onslaught of the Delta variant now overwhelming the island. With no work, millions of unemployed Cubans have had to rely on the scarce resources of an exhausted state.
Until just a few months ago, Cuba was doing relatively well keeping COVID-19 numbers down. Now, however, the Delta mutation of the virus has overrun the country. The number of new daily cases reported neared 10,000 for a few days in August and around 7-8,000 each day for the next month. On September 27, Cuba reported what could be a positive trend, with 6,009 new cases and 51 deaths in the past day, adding to the total of 866,808 Covid-19 cases and 7,330 deaths. On October 1, the count of new cases was down to 4,873.
The Trump sanctions play a large role in the country’s electrical power woes by blockading oil imports from Venezuela and embargoing parts needed to fix the country’s aging electrical system. The outages are usually scheduled to last four hours and often go much longer.
Going to hospital is frightening because hospitals lack basic supplies and drugs. My friend in Santa Clara is still suffering the aftermath of recovering from hernia surgery without painkillers. Many of his friends, he tells me, have died of COVID. My friend in Trinidad, who just had his appendix removed, is in similarly rough shape and worried sick about his father, who has COVID and is in isolation.
Even though Cuba has been unique in developing effective vaccines to prevent COVID, “The Yankee blockade prevents Cuba from acquiring all the syringes needed to supply them,” says Rene Gonzalez. “It is a crime against humanity.” Gonzalez is a national hero as a member of the “Cuban Five” — a group of Cuban secret agents who had been operating in Florida in the 1990s to monitor and impede the many terrorist plots against their country. For this, he spent 15 years in prison in the U.S.
My doctor friend tells me many health workers themselves are getting sick, and all are overwhelmed with the demand. Cuban social media is full of stories of sick Cubans waiting for hours and days for ambulances, for consultation, for care, and, later, for hearses and room in cemeteries. The whole system is swamped.
Although a great many Cubans feel hopeless, Gonzalez is not one of them. He sees hope for Cuba to eventually overtake the infection rate with its home-grown as well as imported vaccines, prompting tourism to eventually return.
Already, the government says, much of Havana’s population has been vaccinated at least once with Cuba’s three-dose vaccine. By December, Cuba plans to have more than 90 per cent of its people, including children, fully vaccinated. Not surprisingly, Cuban friends tell me they are all eager to get vaccinated, with no anti-vax movement or sentiment in sight.
Cubans had been hopeful that Biden’s victory would restore the more liberal relations — and the relative prosperity and political liberalization — of the Obama era, but those hopes have been dashed. Once Trump came in, as a friend in the central Cuban city of Sancti Spiritus tells me:
"Basic necessities became scarce. We had shortages of all kinds that affected everything -- education, tourism, and health. All these measures of the Trump administration that the Biden government maintains today harm people who work and have families to support."
Biden has unequivocally blamed Cuba’s government for its citizens’ misery without loosening any of his predecessor’s sanctions. Any hint of prosperity is now gone, and the State has heavy-handedly suppressed protest, claiming it to be the product of U.S. interference and propaganda. There is probably truth to that, but suppressing dissent harshly hasn’t helped Cuba’s world image or its domestic popularity. It has certainly put a damper on what Cubans feel safe in telling outsiders, friends tell me.
Is all this misery caused by an inefficient, repressive government, as critics claim? By an inhumane 60-year old “asphyxiation” strategy made insufferably worse by Donald Trump, as loyalists see it? Or by some combination? Regardless of who you blame, Cubans — like my friends and contacts — need Canadians to help them.
There’s a long history of friendship between our countries. In normal times, more than a million Canadians visit Cuba yearly, and many of us have developed friendships, as I have, with the people who serve us and who we meet on our visits. Now, these good people need us, and, though Cuba is a tricky place to offer help to, it can be done. There are ways Canadians can help, and the need was never greater.
Here’s how you can help:
The Canadian Network on Cuba has been sending syringes and antibiotics by air freight on an ongoing basis. They sent 1.9 million syringes in July. The network does not issue tax receipts. You can donate via cheque or e-transfer, making cheques payable to CNC with “medical supplies” on the memo line. Address: CNC c/o Sharon Skup, 56 Riverwood Terrace, Bolton ON L7E 1S4. CNC also accepts e-transfers sent to [email protected]. Mention “medical supplies” in message. CNC says it’s important to also send a separate email with the exact spelling of your secret password/answer and your name so they can then open your e-transfer (or phone 905.951.8499 with that information).
The Dubois Charitable Foundation ships medical supplies and does offer tax receipts. It provides humanitarian aid in the form of medical equipment, and supplies, as well as clothing, bedding, footwear, and household goods, primarily to the people of Cuba and to other countries, such as Haiti.
Not Just Tourists (NJT) has chapters in many Canadian cities. In 2019, they set me and my travelling companions up with suitcases full of medical supplies, which we brought to Cuban hospitals on a tour of central Cuba. We did it again in 2020, and, in both cases, it was a tremendously rewarding experience. NJT also organizes shipments of supplies both to Cuba and to developing nations around the world.
Local efforts can make a big difference. Near Ottawa, I’ve been working with Cubacan Bikes. We plan to send two shipping containers of used, refurbished bikes collected from Ottawa and Eastern Ontario to Cuba this fall. We know, from donating a bike to one Cuban family last year, just before the pandemic, how valuable it can be to a whole extended Cuban family in terms of transportation around town, commuting and shopping. We’re working to raise $15,000 for all the costs involved in sending 600 or more bikes. It sounds like a lot, but the $20 or $25 per bike we expect to pay is a lot less than the cost of postage of a small package to the island.
If you know Americans who would like to donate, you can suggest Global Health Partners, a charity that offers tax receipts and that sends medical supplies to Cuba to support Cuba’s front-line health care workers. They are raising money to send six containers filled with PPE equipment.
The American women’s group Code Pink recently raised over $500,000 that purchased six million syringes for Cuba’s vaccination drive and also offers charitable receipts. Now, the group is raising money to send massive amounts of canned tuna and condensed milk. These goods contain protein and are non-perishable, so families can store them for those weeks in which they are unable to find or afford a decent diet.
Beyond material help, Gonzalez feels strongly that, “international solidarity in conditions like this is essential,” citing the syringes sent by the Canadian Network On Cuba as an example.
“No solidarity action is small, and sustaining that spirit is important for us to face this,” writes Gonzalez.
“The international fight against the genocidal North American blockade is another way to help. We must demand that the governments of the world respect the majority vote in the UN, which demands year after year in the General Assembly, by almost unanimous vote, the end of the blockade.”
The vaccines are rolling out, but it’s a desperate catch-up game, and Cubans continue to die in large numbers. Every day, news media report deaths of well-known locals — musicians, artists, writers, doctors, community leaders — the people who make Cuba the unique place it is. In their hour of need, Cubans look to their friends in Canada and around the world to help them.
Ish Theilheimer is former Publisher of the online news source, StraightGoods News and travels often in Cuba. He lives in Golden Lake, Ontario, where he produces musical theatre.