BMJ 2013; 347 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.
f6537 (Published 29 October 2013)
Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6537
A group of doctors from the United States joined with international colleagues in a call to end their country’s embargo against Cuba during a critical care conference held in Havana in mid-September. The doctors called the embargo a “humanitarian catastrophe . . . that violates both moral standards and international law.”
In a letter to President Barack Obama, dated 24 October 2013, the doctors state, “We are not a political party. Nor are we even an organization. Nor do we have a shared social agenda. We are simply doctors who met to share our clinical knowledge and experiences in emergency and critical care medicine.”
The international gathering, sponsored by DevelopingEM, drew about 185 doctors from 18 countries, including many from the United States. The conference focused primarily on clinical aspects of emergency care and related public health issues, and included a lecture by Jorge Soberon of the Cuban health ministry, who told the audience that the embargo has had devastating effects on the health of Cubans. He cited many instances in which Cuba has been unable to purchase medicine to treat problems such as childhood leukemia, or was prevented from obtaining enteric feeds for children whose lives were endangered by diarrheal diseases.
After hearing Soberon’s presentation, the conference participants voted overwhelmingly to send a letter to President Obama calling for an end to the embargo.
In addition to prohibiting US companies from selling medicines and medical devices to Cuba, the embargo also prohibits foreign companies from doing business with the United States if they trade with Cuba.
Soberon told the gathering that the Office of Foreign Assets of the US Treasury Department stopped Cuba from receiving $4m (£2.5m; €2.9m) worth of drugs from France to combat AIDS and tuberculosis. He added that fines for doing business with Cuba had doubled under President Obama compared with the presidency of George W Bush.
He said that the embargo was not only against international law but was also “against humanity to deny medical support to those who are suffering.”
Recalling the widespread threat of starvation and an epidemic of blindness among Cuban children resulting from the loss of economic aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soberon expressed wonder that instead of loosening restrictions, the US tightened the blockade, making it even harder to obtain needed nutritional and medical supplies. He said, “How could it be when your neighbor is suffering that you make it worse?”
According to a UN report, the embargo is rooted in a 1960 policy made explicit in a document declassified in the 1990s, which states, “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . to decrease real wages, bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of government.”
Flora Roca, a Cuban psychiatrist who was not at the conference said, “The US thinks the embargo will make Cubans rise up against the Cuban government, but it doesn’t work that way.”
The letter, signed by S Lee Fineberg, Mark A Newcombe, and Jerome R Hoffman on behalf of the confreres, asked President Obama: “What value is there in denying medicine to a child with leukemia?”
Bernard Lown, a Harvard cardiologist and Nobel peace prize recipient, expressed his support for an end to the embargo, telling the BMJ, “In my many visits to Cuba I’ve witnessed firsthand the horrendous pain inflicted on the people due to the blockade. We, as doctors, must not remain silent.”