On Valentine’s Day 2022 in Havana, Cuba, I received the Soberana Plus booster shot, one of the island nation’s five homegrown COVID-19 vaccines. The jab had been a long time coming.
For the past year, I had been fixated on the idea of being injected with a made-in-Cuba coronavirus vaccine. While obviously not offering protection against the imperial machinations of my homeland and Cuba’s chief antagonist, the United States, the Cuban serums were at least being developed in the interest of global public health rather than pharmaceutical profit or “vaccine apartheid”, as World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has described it.
Having inadvertently taken up residence in Mexico at the start of the pandemic in 2020, I had initially determined to fly to Havana in April 2021 to await vaccine availability. This plan underwent seemingly infinite adjustments, as the pandemic-induced suspension of straightforward air trajectories between Mexico and Cuba – normally a two-hour trip – left me with flight options like Mexico City-Cancun-Vancouver-Heathrow-Frankfurt-Havana and Mexico City-Cancun-Panama City-Bogota-Madrid-Havana.
The search for flights was rendered all the more enjoyable thanks to interference by the US – which, in addition to subjecting Cuba to a debilitating 60-year-long embargo for the crime of refusing to submit to capitalist tyranny, has also ensured that travellers wishing to peruse flights to Cuba on the website of the Mexican airline Aeroméxico cannot do so without being bombarded with warnings about US restrictions on travel to the country. Required to certify that I qualified for one of the permissible motives for visiting Cuba as a US citizen, I selected “support for the Cuban people” – as if this has ever been a real concern for the global superpower that has since the 1960s literally schemed to starve the nation into submission.
Unfortunately, the pandemic provided the US with the opportunity for even more sadistic treatment of Cuba – and, rather than lift sanctions as per the urgent encouragement of United Nations human rights experts, the administrations of Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden instead intensified them.
The embargo’s obstruction of medical imports to Cuba – a lethal business if there ever was one – means that Cuba has had to contend with an acute shortage of, inter alia, syringes and ventilators. In an August 2021 dispatch for NBC News, Havana-based journalist Ed Augustin specified that “two Swiss companies that had previously sold Cuba ventilators said they could no longer continue trading with the island after they were bought out by Vyaire Medical, an Illinois company” – such being the nature of US efforts to isolate an already isolated island.
And in a May 2021 article for the Guardian, Augustin reported that the various Cuban research teams working on the COVID-19 vaccines had to “share just one spectrometer – a machine essential for quality control – powerful enough to analyse a vaccine’s chemical structure”. As the machine’s British manufacturer had been bought out by a US firm – go capitalism! – the Cubans were no longer able to buy spare parts directly.
Nor has Biden’s decision to leave Cuba on the official State Sponsors of Terrorism list – to which it was added in an unceremonious fit during Trump’s final days as president – facilitated the country’s ability to engage on the international financial panorama. This, despite the fact that designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terror is more or less the equivalent in absurdity of applying the Terror Sponsor label to Stonehenge or the pasta aisle at any given supermarket.
In light of such technically incapacitating hurdles, it is no less than utterly astounding that Cuba has managed to manufacture no fewer than five coronavirus vaccines – not to mention its own ventilators and other medical equipment. As of December 2021, more than 90 percent of the Cuban population had already been vaccinated with at least one dose – making it not only the world’s smallest country to produce its own COVID-19 vaccines but also a world leader in vaccine administration. Various Cuban vaccines have already been reported to enjoy an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent.
Ultimately, though, it is all of a piece with Cuba’s flourishing biotechnology industry and the Cuban modus operandi of sticking it to the empire by exerting national sovereignty. It is not an accident that Soberana, the name of the vaccine I eventually received, means “sovereign” in English. Abdala, the name of another of the Cuban vaccines, is inspired by a poem by Cuban independence hero José Martí. And all of this, of course, drives the US crazy.
Notwithstanding my dream of being vaccinated in Cuba, I myself would receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in New York City in August 2021 in the interest of facilitating international travel – which was just as well since, by the time I touched down in Havana in February 2022, the Cubans had begun requiring vaccination certification as a prerequisite for entry.
I arrived in the Cuban capital just in time for the sixtieth anniversary of the US embargo on February 7. Basic goods like coffee and milk were in short supply. Vaccines, on the other hand, were not.
I was directed to the Cira García clinic in Havana’s Miramar neighbourhood, which was one of the go-to spots for foreigners wishing to inject themselves with Cuban coronavirus vaccines and which featured a portrait of Fidel Castro in the lobby. For Cubans, obviously, the vaccine is entirely free – as is healthcare in general – but for me, I was told, the Soberana Plus booster would incur a fee of $45. This, I reckoned, was a small price to pay to atone for the excesses of my country, and was the least I could do in terms of “support for the Cuban people”.
Although the price was in US dollars, however, the currency could not be utilised as a form of payment – nor could any other form of cash currency. Rather, a Cuban MLC card (standing for Moneda Libremente Convertible, or freely convertible currency) was required – and, significantly, US dollars could not be placed on said card.
Thus ensued an adventure in which I had to find a Cuban willing to lend me his MLC card and accompany me to a bank and then to the clinic after depositing the equivalent of $45 to his card. We descended upon the bank with my collection of euros, Mexican pesos, and Turkish lira, and obtained the desired equivalent, after which we headed to Cira García to realise my yearlong dream, or so I thought.
At the clinic, my elation was promptly superseded by panic when the kindly septuagenarian doctor whipped out a blood pressure monitor – an apparatus that has inspired an unnatural terror in me for as long as I can remember. It was not possible, apparently, to administer my Soberana Plus booster without first obtaining a blood pressure reading indicating that I was not having a stroke and/or heart attack – and, sure enough, my readings were off the charts, even after the doctor had spent half an hour trying to calm me down with tales from his four years of medical service in Mozambique back in the day.
Today, Cuba continues to post tens of thousands of medical personnel abroad, in keeping with its decades-long policy of “doctors, not bombs” – which has seen the diminutive nation undertake to combat the global proliferation of everything from malaria and tuberculosis to Ebola and coronavirus. At home, Cuba presides over the greatest doctor-to-patient ratio in the entire world – never mind right-wing propaganda from my own all-powerful country that prefers to bomb rather than save people, and to proliferate a narrative according to which Cuba’s “slave trade in doctors” has resulted in a shortage of domestic medical personnel.
When the Cuban doctor’s Mozambican escapades failed to lower my blood pressure, the owner of the MLC card – who himself hailed from none other than Guantánamo province, site of the illegal US offshore penal colony-cum-torture centre (talk about unnatural terror) – brought me homemade wine at the hospital in an effort to chill me out. Nothing worked, and I was sent home with instructions to monitor my blood pressure daily. The elderly doctor emphasised that, if the readings continued to be high, he could arrange a psychological evaluation to determine what underlying explanations there might be for my neurosis – a far cry, to be sure, from the US approach to healthcare, which is basically to lucratively medicate the hell out of any and all symptoms without endeavouring to detect any root cause or connect the dots.
In the end, I got my Soberana Plus booster in Havana. Suffice it to say that it was not at the Cira García clinic and there was no blood pressure machine involved – although the whole episode did prompt me to order one such apparatus off of the internet to my home in Mexico, such that I might practise behaving like a non-neurotic human being in the future. This undertaking, too, was temporarily thwarted when I discovered that, due to US sanctions, a person physically located in Cuba cannot order a blood pressure apparatus via Amazon Mexico to be delivered to their home in Mexico, and that one’s mother in the US state of Kentucky must enter into one’s Amazon account to order the device for them.
Meanwhile, Cuba is ploughing ahead with plans to deliver tens of millions of doses of homegrown coronavirus vaccines to countries in the Global South – a surefire antidote to the WHO’s diagnosis of global “vaccine apartheid”. As even the pro-imperialist Washington Post reported in disgruntled fashion last year, Cuba was said to be “developing cheap and easy-to-store serums. They are able to last at room temperature for weeks, and in long-term storage as high as 46.4 degrees [46.4C or 115.5F], potentially making them a viable option for low-income, tropical countries that have been pushed aside by bigger, wealthier nations in the international scrum for coronavirus vaccines”.
The majority of Cuban children aged two to 18 have now been fully vaccinated, which, as the Reuters news agency noted in February, “proved pivotal in beating back the highly infectious Omicron variant before it ever took hold on the island”. And as Cuba continues to put much of the world to shame on the coronavirus front, you might say that the Cuban people are supporting us much more than we are supporting them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.