Cuba’s medical supply scarcity is so bad many are resorting to gathering medicinal plants and consulting curanderos (traditional healers). Typical curanderos live in rural area where clients tell them their ailments which determines which plants they’ll be foraging the next day.
Cuba has a long history of using medicinal plants in religious ceremonies and for the treatment of common illnesses. With many prescription drugs in short supply—especially during the COVID-19 pandemic—plant-based medications and alternative treatments such as acupuncture, cupping (local suction created on the skin with the application of heated cups, and therapeutic massages have become increasingly important.
Some Cubans grow their own medicinal herbs in the countryside or on small urban plots. Others consult curanderos or buy plant-based medicines at government pharmacies and from private entrepreneurs.
Cuba’s economy has been ailing for decades, exacerbated by mismanagement, US sanctions, the collapse of the Soviet Union —Cuba’s former benefactor — in 1991, and limited trade with friendly nations including Venezuela, which has endured its own economic crisis. Tighter US restrictions during the Trump administration restricted travel there which reduced the amount of money and parcels that could be sent from the mainland, both of which have been a source of medicines. Most recently, the pandemic has decimated tourism, a vital source of revenue the government needs to buy essential supplies.
“There are shortages of everything,” said Richard Feinberg, a Cuba scholar and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. “Cuba doesn’t have the foreign exchange to import medicines or many other things.”