Greening Cuba: A Visit in 2001
Greening Cuba: How did it happen?
In 1996 Natural Health Magazine published an article on the explosion of herbal medicine use in the country of Cuba. It cited the fall of the Soviet Union and the resulting dearth of allopathic medicine on the island. This was followed by the rebirth of traditional medicines: the greening of Cuba. What was unusual was that this rebirth was government sponsored AND that traditional medicine was widely used by allopathically trained doctors, in the hospitals, AND that there were green pharmacies, Farmacias Verdes, which sold only herbal medicine. Cuba was a world leader in traditional medicine! At that time, I promised myself a trip to Cuba.
Arriving in Havana
We (my husband Bill, a horticulturalist and I) flew into La Habana (Havana) on January 6th, 2001. We arrived at night and were taken by taxi to our casa particular, a private home where we would rent a room. The casa was old colonial and very beautiful with high ceilings and an airiness possible on a Caribbean island. We slept well and woke to the sound of the city of La Habana, voices in the streets and all around us. The weather was warm and we headed outside to find fresh fruit and hopefully some organiponicos, the organic gardens that grow all over Havana.
That morning we found our fresh fruit, although no organiponicos. We couldn’t find whole wheat bread either….. allegedly Castro, who is apparently a big health food advocate, built factories for brown rice and whole wheat bread and no one would eat them!! “Not our tradition!” said the Cubans. There is apparently a similar problem with vegetables although the resistance against vegetables is less deep. While vegetables may not be traditional, they are grown throughout Cuba organically. During the years of Soviet Union aid, Cuba was run as an agribusiness with enormous tractors and tons of pesticides. When the Soviet Union fell it took about three years for the government to pull together a food program that worked. Still being developed, it is unique and exciting. The government is now behind the organic gardens that are all over Cuba. Large state organiponicos are situated all over the island. The transition to a diet high in vegetables has not been easy for the Cubans but it is happening. Pigs are also raised all over the island. They are forage animals and fit into the more natural methods now used.
We had a lot of trouble contacting people those first few days by phone. This was before we realized that there is always trouble contacting people by phone in Cuba. We discovered that many numbers were constantly busy, many were out of order, and when we did get through, our contacts were out of town. So, we looked at one another gleefully and said, “A vacation is meant to be!” And next came our six-hour bus ride to Trinidad, a colonial city near the coast. Buses in Cuba are incredible – fast, comfortable – we even saw a wonderful revolutionary movie called “Operation Fangio” on board our bus.
We had an entire little house to ourselves – another casa particular. After the revolution, the land owning families were allowed to keep all of their money and two houses – but their larger landholdings were claimed as state land – where now the organiponicos are, among other things. So, the second house of the owner, a wonderful woman named Mireles, became our home. Through Mireles we learned of a state organiponica outside of Trinidad (well, perhaps not a complete vacation time), and went there. The Jefe, or boss, was a man in his forties. He asked us to return in three days, so that he could check our references. On our return he said that there had been serious crop damage caused by some norteamericanos who brought pests with them about four years earlier. Meanwhile, he told us, there were several small private organiponicos nearby in Trinidad. It was a beautiful day for a walk so we walked back into town. The vegetation along the road was quite lush, one species we recognized, milkweed (an asclepius that looked like seriaca) grew to ten feet!
We found the garden of Pasqual first. It was about an acre large with raised beds full of vegetables. Medicinal herbs grew wildly in a mound near his aquaculture tanks. I saw Romorillo (used for sore throats), Yerba Buena (mentha) used for stomach discomfort, Cana de Mexico, used for the kidneys, and many others. Unfortunately, the tape on which we had recorded all the names in Spanish was lost. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) grew everywhere on the rich beds of the vegetables. We asked Pasqual about this – was it as celebrated as in the US for the Omega 3 oil? Pasqual just laughted at us – and told us that it was good only for feeding to the pigs. Interestingly, because the humans then eat the pigs, they have a good source of Omega 3s.
Pasqual himself is 81 years old, spry, happy and very talkative. He recalled his childhood under Batista and others, toiling from dawn to dusk in the sugarcane fields. He had fought with the revolution, worked and was now retired tending this garden and selling the produce at the local mercado or market. For Pasqual, free housing, free education, free medicine, and food rations were enough. While not everyone in Cuba was happy with “the situation”, Pasqual was. In fact, it seemed that all of the older people were very happy, the middle aged were mixed, and the young wanted to be anywhere else!!! That seems a lot like the young people here too, actually
From Pasqual’s garden we went perhaps a quarter of a mile to another organiponica, also owned and run by an elder man. Here we saw more herbal medicines growing – he had a separate garden for his that was perhaps 20’ x 20’. Here were the plants in Pasqual’s garden as well as maravilla (calendula officianalis) and llanten (plantago major). These are two of the most important plants in Cuban medicine. Others include Ajo (Allium sativum), our garlic, Sabila (our Aloe vera) and ginger (zingiber officinale).
Herbal Medicine as Common Knowledge in Cuba
Everyone in Cuba knows the names of all common plants in Cuba. I would ask people at bus stops, cafés, everywhere – and they always knew! However, if you picture lots of backyard gardens full of herbs, it is not quite like that. There are large government owned fields of herbs (part of the organiponica system). Here are grown the most widely used plants such as calendula plantain, mint, garlic, and ginger. There are also smaller gardens like Pasqual’s. These exist even in Havana (more later).
There are also state laboratories, which we found at the hospitals, where the plants are analyzed and other labs where they are processed into tinctures, salves and syrups. The tinctures, salves and syrups are then used in the hospitals (primarily it seems in the Clinica de Dolor or Pain Clinic) and sold in both regular pharmacies along with allopathic remedies and in the Farmacias Verdes where only herbal medicines are sold. These pharmacies – regular and verde – are everywhere.
A Havana Hospital Experience
I very much wanted to see the inside of a hospital so I had a cyst removed from my head. The building was old and run down but the operating room was clean, the doctor excellent, and the operation itself painless. While I was on the operating table, a nurse asked me how I would treat an old scar on her lip. I suggested calendula and Vitamin E. The calendula was fine but Vitamin E, like all vitamins, was impossible to find and far too expensive. Fortunately I had brought several calendula with Vitamin E lip balms that I had made and left one with her.
The Tenth of October & Salvadore Allende Hospitals
The next day we returned to Havana and began to track down our contacts. My first meeting was with La Docteura Fe Bosch at the Tenth of October Hospital. Dr. Bosch is the head of the Clinica de Dolor and a recognized authority in Cuba on mental health issues as well on physical health. She took time from a very busy schedule to talk and was extremely interested in setting up communication about herbal medicine. She suggested we plan a conference in January 2002 in Cuba with herbalists from the US. In fact, I am now working on that.
After meeting with Dr. Bosch, we went to the Salvador Allende Hospital. There we met with Dr. M.J. Martinez, botanist, of the Laboratorio Central de Farmacologia, co-author of the article Screening of some Cuban medicinal plants for antimicrobial activity” which was printed in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology 52 in 1996 (pp. 171-174) and I have reprinted on page 6. Dr. Martinez was warm and charming and spent over an hour talking with us.
The Role of the Government
Scientific testing of plants is going on continually in Cuba, sponsored by the government. One result is that data is available from Cuba that can be presented to allopathic medical professionals. While this is unimportant to many herbalists, to those of us whose professions necessitate bridging communication, it is very exciting and should advance the importance of the plants in our greater culture. In addition it means that avenues of communication between the US and Cuba about common herbs has incredible potential. Who would have thought that Copal, which is used in the US as incense, would prove to be the most powerful antimicrobial in Cuba!? (according to the Diccionario Botanico de Nombres Vulgares Cubanos by Juan Tomas Roig y Mesa)And yes, it appears to me that they boil everything to death in their aqueous solutions, but clearly we have much to learn from Cuba – and they from us. They do not use Purslane nor do they use nettle – and it had not occured to Dr. Martinez to test it before we talked.
Roof & Other City Gardens
One other interesting visit was to a home garden, a rooftop with a pig, guinea pigs, chickens, vegetables and a grape arbor (from which they made delicious wine) and a courtyard garden with fruit trees and vegetables. This was in the middle of Havana. Bill also saw a permaculture garden the next day. The owner, Justo Torres Lazo, had created many different ecocultures using old tires and is preserving native endangered species, many in his medicinal garden.
Necessity is, they say, the mother of invention. If so, a great many of her children are living in Cuba. Cubans can fix anything, invent anything, and turn any adversity into a challenge and a victory! From an absence of allopathic medicine they made their herbal medicine system. From the starvation after the fall of the Soviet Union they made an organic solution that leads the world. From a lack of gasoline from cars they moved to public transportation and bicycles. From a deep poverty they have the safest streets, free of drugs and guns. From a lack of money, they have a high value on laughter and communication.
Before we left we visited the enormous (thousands of acres) Botanica Gardens outside of Havana. What we saw was mostly the arboretum. We also saw a large and beautiful Japanese garden with a pond and waterfals. Here there were many plants growing and the guides showed us several medicinal plants.