By Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 29, 1999; Page A10
MATANZAS, Cuba—Swaying awkwardly to traditional Chinese music,
an elderly woman practices the age-old art of tai chi -- in her case, to treat
the neurological disorder known as Parkinson's disease.
Down the hall at the Clinic of Traditional and Natural Medicine, patients
with circulatory problems place their hands and bare feet on large blocks
of cobalt, a metallic element with supposedly curative properties.
On another floor, a man receives acupuncture treatment, which -- along
with doses of pumpkin seed extract -- is intended to shrink a tumor in his
prostate. Elsewhere in the clinic, doctors extol the virtues of passion flower
as a treatment for high blood pressure, basil and garlic for diabetes and
music therapy for digestive problems.
To the medical establishment in the United States and other prosperous
countries, such remedies might sound like quackery. But in Cuba, whose
communist government has long prided itself on the quality of its health
care system, doctors and patients are increasingly relying on the broad
category of treatments known as alternative medicine.
In some respects, Cuba is seeking to make a virtue of necessity. The
collapse of Cuba's Soviet patron, coupled with the protracted U.S. trade
embargo, have helped create dire shortages of drugs, hospital supplies and
equipment in this island nation of 11 million people. In many of Cuba's 273
hospitals, medical equipment sits unused for lack of spare parts. Even
aspirin is scare.
Consequently, the government of President Fidel Castro has been
encouraging the development and wider use of herbal medicines and
homeopathic remedies, as well as acupuncture, yoga and other Asian
therapies. At the same time, Cuba has moved to institutionalize this form of
health care despite lingering skepticism about its effectiveness.
In doing so, the Castro government -- which grants free health services
all citizens as a constitutional right -- has been capitalizing on the abundant
supply of indigenous plants with medical properties in Cuba.
Cubans have a long tradition of treating common ailments with natural
remedies; such methods also have been encouraged over the years by the
country's small population of Chinese immigrants.
Today, each of Cuba's 169 municipalities has a state-run clinic that offers
traditional and natural medical services. Residency and master's degree
programs in the field have been established.
Many pharmacies, their shelves bare of modern drugs and other medical
supplies, are stocked with herbal and homeopathic remedies. According to
the Pan American Health Organization, about 5 million Cubans -- nearly
half the nation's population -- have sought traditional and natural treatments
over the last four years.
In part because other treatments are not available, one out of every five
doctors in Cuba reportedly prescribes natural products to patients.
Some observers draw parallels between the advent of alternatives to
conventional medical care and the explosion in the number of bicycles on
the island that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 -- an
event that drastically reduced Cuba's oil supply and forced cutbacks in
public transportation and the use of private automobiles.
"Both cases involve going from a more high-tech, costly approach to a less
expensive and less sophisticated approach. And both moves were
undertaken out of necessity," said Max Castro, a Cuba specialist at the
University of Miami's North-South Center, a policy research organization
that specializes in U.S.-Latin American relations.
"But while admitting the issue of necessity, the government has also justified
the virtues of both, which in a way is ironic because the traditional
communist ideology has been about moving the country toward modernity,
science and technology, particularly in the area of health," Castro said.
Three years ago, Cuba's health ministry gave its seal of approval to
alternative medicine by including it among five core strategies designed to
improve the country's health care system. A division of natural and
traditional medicine has been established at the ministry with a director in
Much debate continues about the effectiveness of alternative medicine.
Some doctors argue that while its remedies can be useful in treating some
ailments, they are very limited, particularly when it comes to treating more
Some aspects of Cuban medical care are highly advanced. Surgeons at the
Ameijeiras Brothers Hospital, for example, have performed more than 90
heart transplants over the last decade; Cuban researchers have developed
a vaccine for meningitis C and are working on one for cholera.
Through aggressive vaccination, Cuba has eradicated a large number of
common diseases, including polio, measles, mumps, diphtheria and
tuberculosis. Life expectancy in Cuba is an impressive 75 years -- just one
year lower than in the United States.
But alternative medicine has many supporters in Cuba. "Natural medicine
less toxic and has a medical basis. The most important thing is that it has
scientific application," said Juventino Acosta, director of the clinic here in
Matanzas, a port city 60 miles east of Havana. "We do not accept anything
that does not have a scientific basis."
Among other things, Acosta said, alternative medicine can complement
conventional medical practices. He said that many, ranging from thyroid to
breast cancer procedures, were conducted last year using acupuncture
instead of anesthesia.
Anthony Kirkpatrick, an assistant professor at the University of South
Florida College of Medicine in Tampa who has studied Cuba's health care
system extensively, said that herbal medicine can be of value, if only for
"At the very least, the placebo effect can be very powerful in a child
wheezing and panicking from asthma, as opposed to running from one
pharmacy to another looking for an [inhaler] while the child is suffocating,"
"It is something. The government feels it has to offer its people something,
and something is better than nothing."
Patricio Alvarez said he has been taking Lycopodium, an extract from an
evergreen plant, for migraine headaches and is pleased with the results.
"Now the migraines come less frequently, and when they do I do not have
to live through long periods of time feeling like someone is driving an ax
through my head," said Alvarez, 49.
But Ramon Espinosa, 29, remains skeptical.
"I have been taking homeopathic drops for a sinus infection because
nothing else was available at my clinic. . . . And I feel just as bad as I did a
week ago," said Espinosa, who drives a taxi in Havana.
"I think most of us have more faith in pills than in drops, herbs or teas.
for now we have to take what we can get."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company