Natural medicine in Cuba: the socio-political impetus behind mainstream herbal healthcare – Martha Myers-Lowe

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For 3 weeks in July, I lived in Cuba on a state-farm in Las Terrazas just outside of Habana. I originally went to stay on the Fernandez family farm to understand the uses of natural herbal medicine in mainstream healthcare. I gained insightful scientific knowledge about medicinal plants. However, as an anthropologist, it was ultimately the social and political context that captivated me.

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Before I left I was anxious about my basic Spanish and this was a well-founded apprehension. Although my Spanish improved hugely and the farmers were whole-heartedly encouraging and patient with me, I feel I could have gained even more fruitful information with less of a language barrier. Nevertheless, I have learnt from this experience that I can develop my Spanish and confidence with time.

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Me washing the herbs at the well

The Fernandez family showed me around their beautiful farm, explaining the benefits of the almaciga tree (its sap which has been drank for cramps since the Taino people for 900 years), the grape leaves that deter kidney stones and even the cocoa plant which is used for oils and digestion. Fernando emphasized the need for precautionary healthcare in this country. A culture of herbs and healthy lifestyle so that reactionary pharmaceuticals are no longer necessary. The major herbs grown by the ministry of health this season included oregano, calendula, aloe vera, eucalyptus, banana leaves and turmeric.

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Fresh aloe vera

Furthermore, the socio-political impetus behind this sustainable health system intrigued me hugely during my stay. Cuba now prides itself on the best healthcare system in Caribbean and conceivably in the whole of the Americas; it aims to be a medical tourism destination. Nevertheless, this success was primarily due to a dire healthcare situation after the United States embargoes in 1960.

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Pharmacy sign explaining herbal medicine

Whilst in Cuba, it became obvious that the country still strains from a lack of products we see as basic necessities due to this 60-year-old embargo. Pharmaceuticals were no exemption and they are still often scarce in hospitals. In 1962, Castro’s Socialist government implemented a state-run self-sustainable infrastructure growing crops on their tropical and fertile land. The community school teaches herbal healthcare and children learn how to use medicinal herbs and how to grow them in the school garden. Therefore, it was not only a sustainable trend -but an economic necessity.

All family farms became state-run after the revolution and are told the quantity and quality regulations from the state. During my stay, I went with Fernando to home visits. His visits ranged from mansions to slums around Habana all free of charge to the individuals. Although I found the fast language challenging, it became obvious that Fernando could not always cure ailments with natural remedies. It seemed the natural medications were better for precautionary than a terminal or serious disease which was then referred onto pharmaceuticals at high cost to the state.  My time spent with the Fernandez family was invaluable in culture, history, politics and herbal knowledge. I learnt how fascinating Cuba’s history and culture is through natural medicine with its benefits and limitations.

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Family homage to Fidel Castro in every farm

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