Alternative Natural Medicine is flourishing in Cuba.

Author: Joseph Nolberts
Photographer: Marlen Vistorte

Last winter, I visited my family in Cuba. I was indeed impressed that Cuba’s health system is robust and an example of cost-effective care despite the U.S.-imposed embargo, which dramatically limits access to a full spectrum of goods and amenities.

My young daughter is in first grade, and she mentioned that healthcare personnel working at research centers often visit her school to teach them about the herbs that are good for their health.

Glass cups with green tea and tea leaves isolated on white.

Research into alternative medicine has increased on the island over the last decade after a resolution passed in 2009 by the Cuban government to set up a legal framework for its development and use. Through the resolution, the Ministry of Public Health has begun to implement the use of alternative medicine through a variety of different programs. The Ecological Research Center for Sierra del Rosario Reserve, located in Las Terrazas, is one such institution.

In the pharmacies, modern drugs are missing, but the section with alternative natural extracts are full of them. A board containing the medicinal characteristics of each extract is available in each pharmacy. The embargo has been helping the health care administration to encourage the development of the alternative natural pharmaceutical industry. It has been proven for a thousand years that herbal medicine as an effective treatment for many diseases, moreover they have no side effects or fewer than new drugs.

Moringa is the essential herb, but they are all critical, as an extract of linden or passionflower help patients with insomnia. The extract of bitter orange is excellent for blood pressure problems. In Cuba, there is a Doctor in every fourth street, called the family doctor. I visited one in Playa Marianao close to the place I was renting, in search of something to help with sleeping, and the Doctor recommended first the alternative extract, and only after that mentioned that Benadryl could also be helpful. She said that typically, Cubans would look for an herbal cure and only after that visit their family doctor.

In order to keep up with demand at polyclinics and pharmacies of alternative medicine, government-owns farmlands dedicated not only to the production of food but also of medicinal plants to be refined for consumption. Production at these farms has been expanded to include common medicinal plants like oregano, aloe vera, mint, and moringa.

In tropical areas like Cuba, illnesses like the flu, stomach problems, or diarrhea are common. In turn, many different plants are cultivated to treat these ailments that doctors and civilians try to utilize before resorting to pills or other forms of modern medicine.

Cuba’s investment in the future of alternative medicine is the backbone of its healthcare system. Sadly, older patients have faith in herbal medicine, while many young people do not want to know anything about it. This is the main reason why healthcare personnel often visit schools to teach children as younger as seven years old.

There is another community on the island that is heavily invested in the uses of alternative medicine. Followers of Santeria, a religion that dates back to Cuba’s colonial past and blends Spanish Catholicism with Yoruba traditions, incorporate alternative medicine into their practices for both medicinal and spiritual benefits.

Cuba’s expertise with alternative medicine and its reputation in using it effectively is gaining the attention of foreign medical students, principally Africans, where modern medicine does not exist yet.

There are thousands of students at the medical school, and they are from all over the world. Cuba has developed a smartphone app compiling names and uses of medicinal plants. The app is one example of how alternative medicine has taken an essential place in Cuba’s culture.

OdesLink Media Group