15. Thousands of Cubans Losing Their Sight Because Of Malnutrition

Sources: PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Date: 4/16/93 Title: "Malnutrition in Cuba so severe, thousands are losing their sight" Author: Lizette Alvarez; THE CUBA ADVOCATE Date: May 1993 Title: "Dateline: Miami" Authors: Jamie York and Emily Coffey; SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER Date: 11/4/93 Title: "Allies desert U.S. on Cuban embargo"

SYNOPSIS: In mid-April, 1993, the Knight-Ridder News Service carried a lengthy article by journalist Lizette Alvarez that warned of a rare disease caused by malnutrition. The rare malnutritional ailment, called optic neuropathy, can lead to blindness.

Alvarez reported that after two years of severe food shortages, thousands of Cubans were going blind and that some 12,000 Cubans were treated for the ailment at hospitals and clinics in Havana during the last two months. On July 17th, the Toronto Star reported that some 45,000 Cubans had been affected by the epidemic of optical neuritis.

Cubans are losing their eyesight because of an almost total lack of meat, milk, cheese, and vegetables in their diet. A number of them also are suffering from beriberi, an illness related to Vitamin B1 deficiency that attacks muscles and nerves and can lead to paralysis.

Most Cubans can only afford the food they get from the government: one bread roll a day; ten ounces of beans a month; and six pounds of rice a month, for three people. Alvarez reported that when Cubans get hungry, they heat water and add sugar.

The article was an important one, well-researched and well-written, except for one critical oversight. The story did not mention one of the prime causes of malnutrition in Cuba-the U.S. economic blockade.

Jamie York and Emily Coffey, editors of The Cuba Advocate, in Boulder, Colorado, point out that the story accurately portrayed the scope of the crisis, but did not mention that the U.S. government was using food as a political weapon.

While the Cuban government confirms the epidemic, it says only a few thousand people have been affected and denies reports of widespread malnutrition. At the same time, it says excessive smoking and drinking -- not just malnutrition -- are to blame. U.S. doctors say smoking and drinking are not to blame -- starvation is to blame. "It's an indication that these people are starving," said Matthew Kay, a neuro-ophthalmologist at Miami's Bascom Palmer Eye Institute.

A Havana doctor, who sees patients with neuropathy almost every day, said, "This is a big, big problem. Rice and beans just won't cut it. We are all petrified of going blind." Another Cuban doctor said that without the proper food and a steady supply of vitamins the crisis would become a plague.

The U.S. embargo, implemented in 1961, has already cost Cuba more than $37 billion in trade and investment; created fuel shortages that have slowed agricultural and industrial development; and now is causing tens of thousands of people to go blind. The United States stands nearly alone in world opinion on the Cuban embargo. On November 3, 1993, the United Nations General Assembly, in a non-binding but forceful resolution, repudiated the 33-year-old embargo and urged nations to ignore it. The vote in the General Assembly was 88-4, with 57 abstentions. The four nations voting against the resolution were the United States, Israel, Albania, and Paraguay.

Referring to the growing tragedy in Cuba, York and Coffey wondered, "How does the public learn about U.S. government policies if they are not mentioned by the media? What happened to the public's right to know?"

SSU Censored Researcher: Kristen Rutledge

COMMENTS: Jamie York and Emily Coffey, co-editors of The Cuba Advocate, a monthly newsletter dedicated to providing "censored" news about Cuba, both feel that the mass media have failed to provide the U.S. public with an accurate, fair, and truthful account of life in Cuba and U.S. policy on Cuba. "The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 (The Torricelli Bill) is in effect preventing U.S. subsidiaries of foreign countries from around the world from trading with Cuba," Coffey said. "This turns the U.S. embargo into an economic blockade. Nothing is said in the media about the blockade preventing food and medicine from going to the Cuban people."

In response to who will benefit from better media coverage of the Cuban situation, Coffey said, "Everybody will. Most U.S. citizens do not realize that if we were free to travel to Cuba and trade with Cuba this would be good economics for both people. Cuba has 10 million people that would like to buy a lot of products from us."

York feels that the limited media "coverage of U.S. policy on Cuba benefits a handful of wealthy, influential Cuban-Americans who want the total capitulation of socialist Cuba to capitalism. This elite group has the most to gain by returning Havana to its former status as the gambling and prostitution playground of the Caribbean."

Both York and Coffey said there were a number of other stories that would contribute to public knowledge and understanding of U.S.-Cuba relations if they had not been censored by the media.