- Location: Holguin, Cuba
- Date: July 20-30, 2008
- Attendee: Ferdinando Pisani
The International Conference of Traditional, Natural and Bioenergetic Medicine is an event organized every two years by the Medical Faculty of the city of Holguin, Cuba. The conference, now at its 6th installment, is an opportunity for medical professionals from all South America and the Caribbean to exchange their ideas, research findings, and life passion. The conference was attended by about 200 foreign physicians (including 3 from the US) and about 300 Cuban health professionals (physicians, nurses and medical students).
The conference was separated in 3 parts: (i) a three day marathon (8 am to 7 pm) of parallel presentations and discussions in 6 lecture theaters; (ii) two days of more extensive workshops; (iii) five days of in-depth courses.
The Cuban per capita GDP is below 4000 USD which makes it a low-income developing country. However, it is well known that Cuba has a medical system more akin to the "first-world" Scandinavian nations offering universal health care. This has been achieved by the Communist Revolution that prioritized the health, education and full participation of its citizens in its objectives. It has to be mentioned here the known fact that the costs have unfortunately been the stifling of civil rights and the suppression of dissident movements. Without entering in an analysis of Cuba's historical process one cannot help being impressed by the efforts this small country makes to sustain its medical and health care system.
It is important to mention that Cuba offers the foreign visitor the most interesting opportunities to have insights on human nature and appreciate how human values that are shared worldwide.
A tourist visiting Venice has the opportunity to observe the way life is organized in a lagoon: everything that is usually organized in motor vehicles is managed by boats (i.e. ambulances, fire-enegines, school-buses, etc.). Notwithstanding this different condition of having canals instead of roads, life works the same way. Similarly, in Cuba one has the opportunity to observe the way life is organized in a State Economy: everything that usually is organized by private groups is managed by the State (i.e. social clubs, coffee shops, entertainment, publishing houses, etc.). Notwithstanding the incredibly opposing differences from a market economy, people's values, ideals, professionalism and curiosity are the same.
The main difference is that making money (in the sense of working to make the most amount of money for oneself) is not a permitted social value. There is certainly the desire to express human nature in this form but it is simply not allowed. While for us, in our society, it is an accepted custom that a young person might enter the profession of finance, commerce or business to further oneself and to gain material standing and possessions; in Cuba it is not. There, ambitious bright people need to express themselves in other forms: art, politics, science. These people will eventually have the opportunity to distinguish themselves, travel abroad and receive fringe benefits from the government.
Even though this document is not the venue for the philosophical discussion on this subject, it is interesting to note that the first immigrants to New England had a religiously motivated socialist system. Their economy was subsistent and people were starving. It was only a few years later that people were allowed to keep the greatest part of what they produced. This spurred the economy and prosperity became abound. The modern economy has gone a long way since then. However, economic success is not always the expression of the most virtuous. It is in this scenario that FAIM finds itself in the position of promoting medical treatments that are cheaper and healthier than those imposed by dominant economic interests and governments.
For this reason Cuba represents a fascinating experiment because these dominating forces are completely absent and individual health care decisions are made in the patients best interest, given the economic limitations of the country as a whole and the best possible medical knowledge available.
Understanding this big power game, Cuba decided to embrace and cultivate Alternative Medicine. They desired to be independent of the Medicine promoted and propagated by Big Business Interests and the Government Agencies they believe work in collusion with these. This became an issue of national security because there is a desire to be outside the orbit of organizations like the CDC and the NIH.
The first thing that Cuba did was to go to their nonaligned allies of the time (Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam) and introduced their medicine in military hospitals. The project later expanded to creating Alternative Medicine clinics in every single municipality of the country. Hospitals were also formed. The one in Holguin is described further down in this document.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the generous subsidies stopped pouring into Cuba, Alternative Medicine with the use of low cost protocols, became part of the solution to get through a period of very harsh economic austerities.
The official nomenclature for CAM is TNM: Traditional - in the sense of Traditional Chinese Medicine (CTM) and the like - and Natural Medicine for which there is a division in the Ministry of Health. TNM is an obligatory subject to all medical students and it has become a medical specialization for thousands, as oncology or cardiology would be.
Just as in the US, there are physicians who are wholeheartedly committed to TNM. Cuba has its flag bearers. For example, the province of Matanza has its principal politician who is a CAM specialist and has made the integration of TNM a personal project at the National Assembly.
The influence of Big Pharma being completely absent, any research project is motivated principally by scientific endeavor. Notwithstanding the absence of Big Pharma, there is still a small voice of skeptics within the medical world (there is a skeptics society in Cuba too!) who still embrace a Newtonian Medical Model. This is fascinating to observe because this reveals that big business interests are not the only obstacle to the advancement of non-toxic energy-based medicine but that dogma is an important constituent. In this respect this could be an insight to abide to T. S. Kuhn's ideas in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that paradigm shifts are not possible by the mere authority of argument alone.
Cuba currently gives full scholarships to tens of thousands of medical students, most of them from Central America. They ask from these students a moral commitment to return to their countries and work in poor areas. This is the Cuban way to do politics in the 21st century, distancing itself from the Cold War era when gun-bearing idealistic students were traveling abroad to many of the same places.
Currently, Cuba has many of its MDs and medical personnel abroad on mission. In Venezuela alone, 20,000 participate in an exchange deal with President Chavez. These people receive personal monetary incentives in these missions, but some of them find themselves serving in really abandoned places. They return with re-dimensioned opinions of their home society that, notwithstanding all the personal restrictions people live in, seems like paradise compared to the dire social conditions of most of the world's population.
The Cubans are very scientifically based and do their due diligence with any new idea that comes their way. Being in relative isolation they do not have much opportunity to familiarize with some of the most innovative ideas. For this reason, the conference in Holguin is an opportunity for them to learn from outsiders. They are open and eager to engage in research projects and develop new ideas that can help them continue to maintain their exemplary medical system.
I had the opportunity to visit the "Integrative Centre for the Development of TNM: Juan T. Roig Mesa". This hospital, completely dedicated to TNM, is named after a great botanist that compiled an encyclopedia of Cuba's medicinal plants and their uses.
The Hospital is situated inside a huge educational complex a few miles from the centre of town. The director of the Hospital, Dr. Noemi Rodriguez, gave me a tour of the infrastructures that offer the following services: TNM, Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation, Odontology, Psychology and Check-ups. The hospital also has an Emergency Room where CAM is applied.
The Hospital was created 10 years ago and has serviced ambulatorily more that 240,000 patients and hospitalized more than 4150.
This Centre uses the following TNM techniques: Acupuncture, Beetherapy (that uses the sting of bees), Aromatherapy, Auriculotherapy (uses metal bearings on acupuncture points in the ear), Colontherapy, Craniopuncture (using acupuncture points on the head to stimulate certain parts of the brain), Chronopuncture (according to the TCM Canonic Text - the Neijing - different acupuncture points activate at different times), Digitopressure, Electroacupuncture, Phytotherapy, Hypnosis, Homeopathy, Iridology, Laserpuncture, Electromagnotherapy, Massage, Moxibustion, Quiropraxis, Catgut Puncture Therapy (using cat-gut surgical thread to stimulate for longer periods acupuncture points), Flower Essences Therapy, Neural therapy, Trophotherapy (diets), Ozone, Trace Element Therapy, and Traditional Exercises (yoga and tai chi).
The hospital puts the following therapies in a category called Physical Medicine: Diathermia (using high frequency waves to warm up the body), Exercises (on a mattress and ball), Electrotherapy, Mud Therapy (using the medicinal properties of clays), Hydromassage, Kinesiology, Lasertherapy, Mechanotherapy (using mechanic devices), Infrared Light Therapy, and Therapeutic Ultrasound Therapy.
As mentioned above, the Cubans are very scientifically oriented and will only apply therapies that have proven themselves through clinical trials. This includes some of the rest of eccentric techniques included in this Hospital: Suction Cup Therapy, Pyramid Energy Therapy, Relaxation Therapy, Blood Letting, Music Therapy, Cutaneous Hammer, Cromotherapy, Bibliotherapy (reading good books!) and Movietherapy. Indeed, the conference in Holguin was an opportunity for scores of poster presentations in these subjects.
Everybody working in the health sector (including nurses and students) are spurred to engage in studies and research. This is part of the culture of "conviviality" which is at the heart of Cuban society. Everyone is expected to participate and is invited to speak out. This occurs at every level of society and everywhere. For example, at a local neighborhood level, every few streets hosts a CDR - Centre for the Defense of the Revolution - where all local issues are discussed. Of course, many people find these meetings tedious, the same kind of tediousness encountered in the discussions of the National Assembly, where unanimous votes are the desired results. The same grass-root style of government is reflected in the medical system. Every neighborhood, or every group of homes in the rural areas, has its family doctor. He or she lives with and is part of that community, monitors the health of everyone and practices preventive medicine.
I visited few pharmacies which are all over town and sell medicines for pennies. They all have posters about medicinal plants and their uses. One can buy herbal tinctures and medicinal clays in all pharmacies. But there are some specialized Green Pharmacies that only sell natural products. A particular favorite product is the Mango Bark Tincture that has remarkable properties (of course, sustained by published research). Cuba also produces pharmaceutical products from natural sources. Two famous ones are PPG which is a cholesterol lowering drug made from sugarcane and a cancer drug based on scorpion poison.