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22 May 1997 Edition

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US resistance to Cuban blockade

By Dara MacNeil

Last year, a UN report estimated that 4000 children were dying every month in Iraq, as a direct result of US-driven sanctions on that country. The sanctions are in place supposedly to achieve what the Gulf War failed to achieve, namely unseat Saddam Hussein.

And now comes evidence of the suffering that is caused by the US blockade of Cuba. A new report on the problem - published in March, but details have only come to hand now - has been compiled by the American Association for World Health. Ironically, the Association - as the name suggests - is composed chiefly of US doctors, research scientists and lawyers. Their report results from a year-long study of the day-to-day effects of the blockade on Cuba.

It reveals that the blockade has caused deaths among the population; left hospitalised children without painkilling drugs; forced medical practitioners to operate equipment at less than half-efficiency because they are denied spare parts, and ensured the average Cuban's daily calorie intake dropped by a third between 1989 and 1993.

With the intensification of the blockade initiated by President Bush and continued by the current incumbent, Bill Clinton, most newly-developed drugs for the treatment of cancer in children, breast cancer and AIDS, are denied to Cuban patients. US firms, or their subsidiaries, control the world market for these and other drugs. The companies would face prosecution were they to sell their product to Cuba. According to the report the blockade is causing widespread suffering and many needless deaths.

However, the authors also point out that a humanitarian catastrophe (such as that occurring in Iraq) has been avoided because of the high priority given to health and health spending by the Cuban authorities. The authors explain that Cuba has cut back spending on defence, culture, administration and arts, in order to allocate more money to health.

It concludes: ``Only the pre-existing excellence of the (health) system and the extraordinary dedication of the Cuban medical community have prevented infinitely greater loss of life and suffering.''

And yet according to The Guardian, even when all these extraordinary difficulties are taken into account, Cuba's infant mortality rate remains half of that in Washington DC - that city being home to the lawmakers who are hellbent on ensuring the threat of Cuba's good example does not survive. Furthermore, in terms of access to health services and immunisation programmes, and in the life expectancy enjoyed by Cubans, the country is comparable to the wealthy nations of Europe. In other words, its health system is still far, far superior to anything on offer to the citizenry of the United States. Is it any wonder successive US administrations have engaged in such vigorous campaigns to have Cuba destroyed?

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Lucius Walker - head of US group Pastors for Peace - has once again breached his country's blockade of the tiny Caribbean island. Walker, who organises an annual `United States-Cuba Friendship Caravan, has proven a thorn in the side of successive US administrations and a source of never ending embarrassment for them abroad.

In 1994, Walker's annual aid caravan to Cuba was stopped at the US-Mexican border by US Customs. They demanded that he obtain export licences for his consignment of medicines and computers. As the blockade makes the issuance of such licences virtually impossible, the Reverend (he is Presbyterian) promptly embarked on a hunger strike. Despite being almost 70 years of age, Walker maintained his strike for over two months, until an embarrassed administration was forced to relent. The hunger strike had come close to killing him.

This year, the `Caravanistas' simply refused point-blank to apply for export licences. Quite logically, they pointed out that humanitarian aid should be unhindered by such bureaucracy.

Last week, the 130-strong Caravan successfully bypassed US Customs and is currently en route to Cuba with its 500 tonnes of aid. It includes: kidney dialysis machines; 50,000 pairs of glasses; three school buses; a mobile library equipped with computers; various medicines and, remarkably, a wholly-intact pharmaceutical laboratory.

Also to be delivered are 5,000 Bibles, which is illustrative of the constructive role played by the Presbyterian Churches in Cuba, in comparison to the conduct of some of their more opportunistic counterparts.

And it also speaks volumes about the peculiar strain of that religion that has taken root here.

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