It's unclear why U.S. medical exports aren't reaching Cuba
12:00 AM CST on Saturday, December 5, 2009
The Associated Press
HAVANA – It was a story meant to captivate the United Nations: A dozen
Cuban children with heart defects had to endure unnecessary surgery
because the U.S. embargo blocked them from receiving American-made
The embargo as a whole "could be classified as an act of genocide,"
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said before the U.N. General Assembly
voted 187-3 in October to condemn U.S. policy toward Cuba for the 18th
A dramatic argument – but the facts behind it are fuzzy and tangled in
the bureaucracies of two hostile countries.
U.S. law exempted medicine and health care supplies from the embargo in
1992. It also lifted the ban on agricultural exports in 2000, and the
United States is now Cuba's biggest supplier of food – $710 million
worth last year.
The U.S. says it approved $142 million in commercial and donated medical
exports to the communist island in 2008. So why did less than 1 percent
of it get there?
The answer lies somewhere in a war of words between the countries and
provides a cautionary lesson as the U.S. and Cuba take halting steps
toward better ties: Reality often takes a back seat to rhetoric.
Cuba claims that despite the embargo exemption, the U.S. government
imposes extra regulations on medical exports to discourage American
companies from participating.
U.S. medical export firms said the paperwork can be troublesome, but
they would not speak on the record or give examples for fear of
jeopardizing export applications.
"It's not the embargo," said John Kavulich, a senior policy adviser at
the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council, which provides
nonpartisan commercial and economic information about Cuba. "These are
economic and political decisions not to buy."
Cuba often waits for allies to donate what it needs, Kavulich said.
"They'd rather get things for free than pay for them."
Rodriguez singled out the case of Alexis García Iribar, a 6-year-old
with a congenital heart defect who underwent successful but unnecessary
surgery in March. Rodríguez said he could have mentioned a dozen other
cases in which children between 5 months and 13 years old underwent
surgery for want of technology made only in the U.S.
Rodríguez named four U.S. companies he said were blocked by the embargo
from selling catheters or other needed supplies to Cuba.
Two of them, Massachusetts-based Boston Scientific and AGA Medical of
Minnesota, declined to comment. The parent company of another, Applied
Biosystems, said it has "not sought to sell products to Cuba." The
fourth company, NuMed Inc. of Hopkinton, N.Y., would say only: "We will
make every effort to work with the U.S. government and the Cuban
The Associated Press
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