Cuba: When Silence Kills

Erasmo Calzadilla

Contamination levels within the Havana city limits. Picture from Geocuba.

HAVANA TIMES — Cancer has been spreading at an alarming pace in Cuba for decades. In 2012, it became the first cause of death in the country, with figures far higher than those of other countries in the region.

To explain this “strange” phenomenon, Ministry of Health officials invoke the aging of the population and a number of harmful vices. I’ve written several posts refuting these half-truths.

Some habits certainly increase the risks of cancer, but none explain the exponential spread of the condition. Population aging does explain the phenomenon, but only 80 % of it – the remaining 20 % would still need to be explained. I have my own ideas about this and I would love to share them with you.

I suspect (and some evidence confirms this) that a growing number of carcinogens are invading our surroundings and doing us in.


Ever since Venezuelan oil began to oxygenate Cuba’s economy, the country’s main avenues traded in their air for car exhaust. In some of the larger municipalities, air pollution reaches extreme levels (according to international norms).

Most of the vehicles in circulation are not fitted with a filter that could capture residual combustion particles. Some people suspect that the foul-smelling soot is harmful, but next to no one knows (because very little has been done to have people know) that, in 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified car exhaust as one of the most dangerous carcinogens, next to plutonium and ultraviolet radiation.

Breathing in these fumes regularly increases the risks of developing lung cancer. Could this have anything to do with the lung cancer epidemic we’re enduring? The most basic logic tells us that this is a good clue to investigate and act on.

Though a considerable part of diesel-fuel pollution is caused by privately-owned vehicles, it is the State’s responsibility to make filters available, keep the most polluting vehicles from circulating and, most importantly, warning people of the dangers they are exposed to. Why doesn’t it? Many lives could be saved. Sometimes, inaction and silence are tantamount to criminal complicity.

But let us follow this trail – the “party” is only just beginning.

The much-praised urban vegetable gardens are “fertilized” with car exhaust and industrial fumes on a daily basis. A study conducted some years ago in the province of Santa Clara revealed high concentrations of heavy metals in the food products sold by these gardens.

Some of the metals detected during the study are carcinogens. Cadmium, for instance, can cause breast cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer in Cuba. Could this be the cause (or one of the causes) behind the rise in breast cancer cases on the island? Shouldn’t the Ministries of Health and Agriculture inspect urban vegetable gardens in the most polluted cities and publish the results, so that everyone knows what they’re dealing with, and so that we can avoid feeding children “heavy vegetables”? Shouldn’t we, as citizens, be demanding that the officials and researchers who deal with this information – and do not make it public – be held accountable?


Asbestos is a well-known carcinogen whose production and import is prohibited in most countries. Despite this, some countries, like Canada, China and Cuba, do not take heed of the warnings and regulations.

In our country, asbestos is used to manufacture roof tiles (destined to schools, for example) and water tanks. Since the Cuban State hasn’t been interested in divulging the risks of this fiber, people tend to handle it inadequately, multiplying the risks.

One can come across broken asbestos roofing sheets anywhere in the city, leaking its poison to the environment. In the outskirts of the city, children play with these, throwing them into open fires to watch them burst. This way, they inhale and vaporize millions of particles. One of them is enough to cause an aggressive mesothelioma.

In my building, unwitting neighbors poked holes in the public water tanks. The asbestos in the tanks (which is normally covered up by a layer of concrete) leaked into the drinking water and continues to be in contact with it to this day.

I told my neighbors, but they obviously don’t believe me, as, “if it were so dangerous, the whole of Cuba would have already been poisoned, and the State would not make water tanks using that material.” Impeccable logic, isn’t it? What should I do now, move?


Flavotoxins are carcinogenic substances produced by a fungus that contaminates peanuts in warm and humid temperatures, the conditions present in Cuba most of the year. Other (colder and drier) countries have set up regulations and have labs that detect and control the toxin. In ours, where peanuts are so popular and used to mitigate hunger so much, what has the government done to measure flavotoxin levels and inform the population about potential risks? As far as I know, nothing…and I would love to be wrong about this.

Mortality in the provinces for each 100,000 inhabitants. Havana is the most contaminated.

The self-employed have not been left behind in this respect. Here are a couple of anecdotes: I met a food vendor who colored his products using merbromin, an anti-septic so toxic that many countries have even prohibited its external use. This is not a carcinogen, but it gives us a sense of what is happening around us.

Another time, I bought a rather shoddy looking grinder that shed tiny bits of metal. With this same metal – god knows what it is – the self-employed manufacture pots, lemon squeezers, toasters, percolators and many other products that come into direct contact with food.

It is the State’s responsibility to subject the products made and sold by the self-employed and private companies to quality control mechanisms. What measures have been implemented to prevent a group of ambitious, ignorant or irresponsible people from placing the health of the country’s population in jeopardy? None, as far as I know.

Furanes and Dioxins

This cute couple of carcinogens is expelled into the atmosphere during the burning of garbage and hospital residues.

Garbage is commonly burnt at Havana’s larger dump sites on a permanent basis. This practice floods entire neighborhoods with acrid smoke.

Hospitals do their part. The three I recently visited (the Julio Trigo, Calixto Garcia and Emergency hospitals) spew out a sweet-tasting, foul-smelling (and now known to be carcinogenic) fog over the institution and into surrounding areas. Every morning, the incinerator at the Julio Trigo hospital floods the obstetrics and gynecology wards with its smoke. Embryos are extremely sensitive to such substances.

What have the State and Ministry of Health done to prevent this? Is the same thing happening at hospitals for high officials, military officers and foreigners? I doubt it.

Drinking Water

Is the water we drink also contaminated with carcinogenic substances? I am beginning to think it is. A study carried out at several areas of the Ejercito Rebelde reservoir revealed high concentrations of heavy metals there. The toxins originate at the Cotorro garbage dump (the second largest in the city) and from the industrial area located in the same municipality – we aren’t talking about an accidental spill.

Now, this highly-contaminated reservoir (also polluted by sewage water) connects with the Vento-Almendares underground basin, which runs right beneath it and supplies nearly half of Havana’s population with drinking water.

The most elementary logic suggests that, if one is dirty, the other is probably not too clean either. Has any study aimed at determining whether the water in this basin is polluted (and at informing the public of this) been undertaken? I’ve looked and found none.

Fishing for Toxins

The city’s sewage is poured into the sea and reservoirs with next to no treatment, or none whatsoever. It is known that the mud and fish near these dump areas are full of harmful substances, some of them carcinogenic.

The Playa el Chivo beach, some meters away from the city center, is the city’s largest drain point. Every day of the year, nearby coasts are teeming with fishermen, ignorant of the risk they are exposing themselves to – and the people who buy from them. How is it possible that a State that is supposedly so concerned with people’s health allows people to fish in this and other contaminated areas, where it doesn’t even put up any warning signs?


This is more or less what a simple mortal can find out. The true story of the dumping of carcinogens in Cuba is probably far bleaker.

Below, I will try to understand the causes behind such irresponsible practices.

The Cuban State is totalitarian and paternalistic. In short, this means that is makes up for the lack of liberties and the miserable salaries with free and quality health services, or the tacit agreement is that it does, at least. Why, in the case of cancer, is this formula not working?

Throughout its history, Cuba’s State-Party has worked to honor its side of the “agreement” and has managed to legitimate itself with the eradication of infectious diseases, a rise in life expectancy and the reduction of maternal and child mortality (among many other indisputable achievements).

Even today, in the midst of a global economic crisis, epidemics continue to be nipped at the bud. By comparison, the response to the spread of cancer seems far more timid. Why?

In other epidemics – dengue, for instance – the enemy is an external agent: a bug, a plague to be “combatted” with propaganda, technology and armies of uniformed professionals. In the case of cancer, however, the “enemy” isn’t outside but within. To combat it, the State-Party-government would have to begin by criticizing its own values and foundational principles, and to go against its own interests as governing elite.

Development as an aim (let us not forget that one of the final aims of communism is the liberation of the productive forces), the dangerous technocratic optimism that gives people excessive and acritical confidence in the future, an organizational model so rigid and vertical that it produces the opposite outcome (voluntarism and entropy), a totalitarian political system that nips all alternative social movements at the bud (and its monitoring and repressive mechanisms) – these are some of the values and practices that directly lead to the mess described above and that have led to the spread of cancer in our country.

The question becomes even more complex and interesting from the perspective of the world energy crisis.

A country like ours, whose energy resources have already begun to decline (every year, it consumes less energy, and it will consume less and less energy), cannot make any profound, infrastructural changes, no matter how much it wishes to do so or how much pressure from ecologists and common citizens it is under.

A social system facing an irreversible decline, that survives by stitching up a hole that is continuously ripped open again, is in no position to hold back the demons that the drive towards modernity (industrialization and unchecked growth) unleashed.

If the people, if the community became aware of this and applied pressure on authorities, we could force the State to implement important changes. Halting asbestos imports, regulating the emission of carcinogenic toxins, prohibiting the operation of highly-polluting vehicles and industries and warning people of the dangers through the mass media does not appear to be that expensive or complicated.

But to try and solve these problems by rushing ahead, importing sophisticated and “clean” technology (the preferred solution of the technocrats in power), means firing off the last few rounds we’ve got and making things worse. A true change in direction, towards controlled de-growth, is necessary and vital.

Anyone genuinely afraid of cancer today should follow this advice (based on statistics): leave the city and move to the countryside.



  • I couldn’t find the official WHO report that classifies diesel exhaust as a type 1 carcinogen. Here is a link to the BBC article that quotes it.
  • The graph showing mortality rates for different provinces is based on data from the last Health Statistics Annual Report (2014).
  • The study that revealed the presence of heavy metals in urban vegetable gardens is available on the Internet, under the strange title of: Contribución a la Gestión ambiental en el contexto de las producciones agrícolas urbanas en la ciudad de Santa Clara (“Contribution to Environmental Management in the Context of Urban Agricultural Production in Santa Clara”).
  • Data on air pollution and the dumping of sewage were taken from chapters 1 and 2 of the Environmental Assessment Report published by Geocuba in 2009.
  • The study that detected heavy metals in the water of the Ejercito Rebelde dam is available on the Internet. It is titled: NIVELES DE PLOMO, ZINC, CADMIO Y COBRE EN EL RÍO ALMENDARES (“Lead, Zinc, Cadmium and Copper Levels in the Almendares River”).
  • For more information on pollutants in lixiviates at the Cotorro garbage dump (lixiviates that reach the dam and seep into the Earth’s phreatic crust), see the article Situación actual de la producción de lixiviados en los vertederos provinciales de ciudad de la habana. Impacto ambiental y propuestas de sistemas de tratamiento (“The Current Situation of the Production of Lixiviates in Provincial Dump Sites in Havana: Environmental Impact and Proposals for Treatment Systems”), published in 2005 by Cuba: The Environment and Development.
  • The point of contact between the waters of the Ejercito Rebelde reservoir (contaminated with heavy metals, some of which are carcinogenic) and the Vento-Almendares basis (which supplies half of Havana with water) was confirmed by a 2005 study titled Uso de tecnicas nucleares en la evaluacion de la Cuenca Almendares-Vento para la gestion sostenible de sus recursos hidricos (“Use of Nuclear Techniques in the Assessment of the Almendares-Vento Basin for the Sustainable Management of its Water Resources”).