Since 1959, Cuba has had a socialist government in power, following the overthrow of the Batista military dictatorship and the success of the communist Cuban revolutionaries. The state has always followed a ‘One State – One Party’ policy, with the intention of unifying and bringing the country together under one banner – the banner of scientific socialism and Marxism-Leninism. Under this Marxist-Leninist political structure, economic, social, and political development has been staggering. Cuba’s successes in the COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrated Cuba’s world-beating healthcare system. Cuba has also sent medical brigades to aid the states which have been crippled by the pandemic.
These medical brigades work in ICU wards around the world, help with scientific research, and have provided PPE to impoverished countries. These measures are unseen anywhere else and have unquestionably saved thousands of lives globally. Cuba also has a world leading education system, with literacy rates higher than those of the USA. According to UNESCO, literacy rates for people aged 15 or over are at 99%.
Why is this important and what does this have to do with cancer? Cuba’s success stories show the positive impact of a government dedicated to the well-being of the many and not just the few. Beyond that, such developments in the medical field foreshadowed Cuba’s biggest medical project yet: the fight against cancer.
Before the Cuban government intervened in the medical emergency of cancer, Cuba was in a dire situation. According to Cancer Control, cancer mortality rates in Cuba were increasing rapidly due to an ageing population, caused by increased life expectancy due to an improvement in living conditions. High levels of heavy smoking and drinking have also been recently reported in the country.
25% of all annual deaths in Cuba are attributed to cancer. Cancer has been the leading cause of death since 2012, and in 2014 the Cuban Ministry for Health reported 23,729 deaths for that year. There was no denying this crisis – and the Cuban government did not hesitate to act.
Cuba has managed to create the National Cancer Plan, invest in biotechnology, and develop anti-cancer drugs to a remarkable extent, all while being under some of the toughest economic sanctions in the world, as well as a very tight trading blockade (which restricts trade and movement).
US sanctions on Cuba were imposed just three years after the establishment of the new socialist government and a year after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. President Kennedy, being a staunch anti-communist, felt threatened by a successful socialist nation in his back garden, and the following American presidents have not faltered on his policy. The only reason Cuba is under these strict economic sanctions is due to its socialistic characteristics. Cuba remained under a full-scale embargo.
In 2017, the US Department of State considered strengthening the embargo, as a response to ‘certain actions’ of the Cuban government. These sanctions have dire consequences on the working people of Cuba, as housing, healthcare, infrastructure, education, and food are all negatively impacted. The Cuban government is also heavily restricted with regards to trade, meaning it is unable to import certain necessary goods. As always in geopolitical economic conflicts, it is the ordinary working people who suffer the most from such embargos.
Despite this, however, the Cuban government has managed to ensure the protection and care of their people in fighting against the cancer crisis. One of the first steps was the setting up of the National Cancer Plan, which is a comprehensive plan that ensures that all Cuban citizens have universal and free access to all levels of healthcare. From chemotherapy and radiotherapy to palliative care, this plan ensures all citizens are given the best care possible.
The Cancer Plan is supported by the fact that Cuba has a world-leading healthcare system and leads the world in medicine and scientific research. Suspected cancer patients are sent to specialized centers for diagnosis and appropriate treatment. This plan has been extremely successful, with cancer no longer being the leading cause of death on the island. More and more cancer cases are being detected earlier, meaning more people are getting appropriate treatment where the prognosis is full recovery.
In 2013, which saw the premiere of this new policy by the Cuban government, the country started a mass investment campaign into biotechnology. Biotechnology has reportedly been vital in fighting cancer cells. The biotech industry in Cuba has been given unimaginable and unprecedented access to overseas trade by the Cuban government. This means biotech companies can now make their own deals with other foreign.
Additionally, in recent years, Cuba has made multi-billion dollar deals with the Chinese, Venezuelan, and Serbian governments to secure further scientific development. It is important to point out that huge investment in biotech is not a new thing for Cuba, but rather a continuation of a decades-long effort.
Breakthroughs in biotechnology research work, alongside chemotherapy and radiotherapy, have been very successful in prolonging the life of cancer patients. Cuba has sent patents of new drugs, vaccines, cancer-prevention equipment, and cancer treatment technology to countries all over the world.
The dedication of the Cuban government to cracking down on the high cancer rates can further be seen in their development in anti-cancer drugs. Nimotuzumab is an anti-cancer drug which is used to treat advanced tumours in the head, neck, or brain. It is a monoclonal antibody, meaning it mimics human immune cells and target certain proteins which cause the uncontrolled division and growth of cells. It is used to this day and has saved thousands of lives from cancerous tumours.
CimaVax-EGF is another drug developed by the Centre of Molecular Immunology, in Havana, Cuba. It is a vaccine used to treat cancer, specifically lung cancer. It is currently available in Cuba, Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peru, and Paraguay. In October 2015, Serbia used the vaccine on 30 patients with a 97% success rate. CimaVax is cheap to produce and store, and has extremely low toxicity, meaning the side effects are minimal.
With regards to cancer research, care, treatment and cure development, Cuba has been hugely successful in protecting the people from this chronic and deadly disease. The Cuban government has not only saved thousands of their own citizens, but also thousands of cancer patients around the world. The cancer success story shows what a committed socialist government can do with its authority.
Cuba is often falsely accused of being a ‘failed communist dystopia’ or a ‘ruthless and corrupt dictatorship’. However, Cuba’s transparency throughout with regards to medical projects has not only been inspiring and positive, but life changing and lifesaving. The democratic organising that it took to implement such a scheme shows Cuba is not a dictatorship, but a compassionate and socialist state, which puts the healthcare of its people before the profit motive.
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Saney, I. (2021). “Cuba Leads in The Global Fight Against COVID-19 Pandemic”. Stabroek News.
(2019 report). Cuba Literacy Rates. UNESCO Cuba | UNESCO UIS.
Perez, T. R, Alvarez, Y. G, and Rodriguez, R. C. (2018). The Burden of Cancer in Cuba and Current strategies for Cancer Control.
Cuba – Battling Cancer with Biotechnology (2013). World Health Organisation.
Luis, C. (2019). “Cuba Uses Comprehensive Plan to Fight Cancer”. CTGN America.