Natalia Marques

Natalia Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organizer, and a graphic designer based in New York City.

The U.S. Blockade of Cuba Hurts Medical Patients in Both Countries

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Scientists in Cuba believe that the breakthroughs they have made in the health care and technology sectors should be used to save and improve lives beyond the country’s borders. This is why the island nation has developed important scientific and medical partnerships with organizations and governments across the globe, including with those in MexicoPalestineAngolaColombiaIran, and Brazil. However, such collaborations are difficult due to the blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States, which has now been in place for the last six decades.

In a conference, “Building Our Future,” held in Havana in November 2022, which brought together youth from Cuba and the United States, scientists at the Cuban Center of Molecular Immunology (CIM) stated during a presentation that the blockade hurts the people of the United States, too. By lifting the sanctions against Cuba, the scientists argued, the people of the United States could have access to life-saving treatments being developed in Cuba, especially against diseases such as diabetes, which ravage working-class communities each year.

A Cure for Diabetes

Cuban scientists have developed both a lung cancer vaccine and a groundbreaking diabetes treatment. The new diabetes treatment, Heberprot-P, developed by the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), can reduce leg amputations of people with diabetic foot ulcers by more than four times. The medication contains a recombinant human epidermal growth factor that, when injected into a foot ulcer, accelerates its healing process, thereby, reducing diabetes-related amputations. And yet, despite the fact that the medication has been registered in Cuba since 2006, and has been registered in several other countries since, people in the United States are unable to get access to Heberprot-P.

Diabetes was the eighth leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killing more than 100,000 patients in that year. “Foot ulcers are among the most common complications of patients who have diabetes,” which can escalate into lower limb amputations, according to a report in the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Each year, around 73,000 “non-traumatic lower extremity amputations” are performed on people who have diabetes in the U.S. These amputations occur at a disproportionate rate depending on the race of a patient, being far more prevalent among Black and Brown people suffering from diabetes. Many point to racial economic disparities and systemic medical racism as the reason for this.

“If you go into low-income African American neighborhoods, it is a war zone… You see people wheeling themselves around in wheelchairs,” Dr. Dean Schillinger, a medical professor at the University of California-San Francisco, told KHN. According to the KHN article, “Amputations are considered a ‘mega-disparity’ and dwarf nearly every other health disparity by race and ethnicity.”

The life expectancy of a patient with post-diabetic lower limb amputation is significantly reduced, according to various reports. “[P]atients with diabetes-related amputations have a high risk of mortality, with a five-year survival rate of 40–48 percent regardless of the etiology of the amputation.” Heberprot-P could help tens of thousands of patients avoid such amputations, however, due to the blockade, U.S. patients cannot access this treatment. People in the U.S. have a vested interest in dismantling the U.S. blockade of Cuba.

“So after five years [post-amputation], that’s the most you can live, and we are preventing that from happening,” said Rydell Alvarez Arzola, a researcher at CIM, in a presentation given to the U.S. and Cuban youth during the conference in Havana. “And that also is something that could bring both of our peoples [in Cuba and the U.S.] together to fight… to eliminate [the blockade].”

Cuban Health Care Under Blockade

Perhaps one of Cuba’s proudest achievements is a world-renowned health care system that has thrived despite economic devastation and a 60-year-long blockade.

After the fall of Cuba’s primary trading partner, the Soviet Union, in 1991, the island saw a GDP decrease of 35 percent over three years, blackouts, and a nosedive in caloric intake. Yet, despite these overwhelming challenges, Cuba never wavered in its commitment to providing universal health care. Universal health care, or access to free and quality health care for all, is a long-standing demand of people’s movements in the United States that has never been implemented largely due to the for-profit model of the health care industry and enormous corporate interests in the sector.

As other nations were enacting neoliberal austerity measures, which drastically cut social services in the 1980s and 1990s, Cuba’s public health care spending increased by 13 percent from 1990 to 1994. Cuba successfully raised its doctor-to-patient ratio to one doctor for every 202 Cubans in the mid-1990s, a far better statistic than the United States’ ratio of one doctor for every 300 people, according to a 2004 census.

As the blockade begins its seventh decade, Cuba is not only upholding universal health care but also continues to be at the forefront of scientific developments globally.

This was evident during the COVID-19 crisis. Cuba, faced with the inability to purchase vaccines developed by U.S. pharmaceutical companies due to the U.S. blockade, developed five vaccines. The nation not only achieved its goal of creating one of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines but also launched the first mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign for children from two to 18 years old in September 2021.

To Share Knowledge Without Restrictions

Despite its achievements, Cuban health care still faces serious, life-threatening limitations due to the economic blockade. CIM, for example, has struggled to find international companies willing to carry out vital services for them. Claudia Plasencia, a CIM researcher, explained during the conference that CIM had signed a contract with a German gene synthesis company which later backed out because it had signed a new contract with a U.S. company. “They could not keep processing our samples, they could not keep doing business with Cuba,” Plasencia said.

Arzola explained how it is virtually impossible to purchase top-of-the-line equipment due to trade restrictions. “A flow cytometer is a machine that costs a quarter-million dollars… even if my lab has the money, I cannot buy the best machine in the world, which is from the U.S., everyone knows that,” he said. Even if CIM were to buy such a machine from a third party, it cannot utilize the repair services from the United States. “I cannot buy these machines even if I have the money, because I would not be able to fix them. You cannot spend a quarter-million dollars every six months [buying a new machine]… even though you know that this [machine] is the best for your patients.”

I spoke to Marianniz Diaz, a young woman scientist at CIM. When asked what we in the U.S. could do to help CIM’s scientists, her answer was straightforward: “The principal thing you can do is eliminate the blockade.”

“I would like us to have an interaction without restrictions, so we [Cuba and the U.S.] can share our science, our products, [and] our knowledge,” she said.

Environmental Racism Is Poisoning America’s Waters

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The United Nations General Assembly recognized “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” on July 28, 2010. Yet, 12 years later, this human right is still out of reach for millions across the globe, particularly in the Global South. Even in the United States, which has the largest gross domestic product globally, poor and working-class people, and in particular Black and Brown people, are denied this fundamental right. In several cities across the United States, residents struggle with system-wide neglect of water systems and the failure of the government to provide access to what is arguably the most essential resource.

The Struggle for Water Is a Struggle Against Racism

Dennis Diaz, a resident of the public housing project Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, New York City, said that after he experienced nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, and migraine headaches around late August and early September, he took preliminary tests that revealed he had been exposed to arsenic.

As early as August 4, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was alerted about cloudy water conditions at the Jacob Riis public housing complex. After apparently testing the water for E. coli and chlorine more than a week later, on August 16, NYCHA announced that the water was safe to drink. But after 11 p.m. on September 2, NYCHA revealed that there was arsenic in the water supply. According to an article in City and State, the city said that officials had known about the arsenic two weeks prior.

Diaz called New York “the greatest city in the world” and explained his frustration with the double standard that he feels local politicians allow to persist when it comes to quality-of-life issues between majority-minority neighborhoods like his own and wealthier, predominantly white residential areas. “Imagine if,” he said, arsenic was found in the water by residents in Manhattan’s “Fifth Avenue or Soho, or Williamsburg,” Brooklyn. “Maybe the outcomes would have been different for them. But for minorities in my community, we’re next to nothing to the politicians.” According to the 2016 data provided by NYCHA, 40 percent of the heads of the households living in public housing under the Housing Choice Voucher Program were Black, while 48 percent had Latin American ancestry.

The city of New York is now denying that there ever was arsenic in the water at Jacob Riis, claiming that the testing method “introduced trace levels of arsenic” to the sample they collected. But Dennis Diaz, who recently received his bloodwork results showing low levels of arsenic, is not convinced. “They’re lying,” he said while referring to the latest statement by the city officials. “They did it in Flint, Michigan, where they lied to them [the residents] for years. You can’t believe these people.”

Since NYCHA’s inception in 1934, New York City’s public housing has fallen into disrepair as the federal government drastically reduced funding for public housing in the 2000s. In 2018, 400,000 tenants sued NYCHA for squalid conditions. Also in 2018, then-U.S. Federal Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman sued NYCHA for health and safety violations, exposing children to lead paint, and training NYCHA workers to “deceive” federal inspectors.

In Baltimore, water in the western part of the city tested positive for E. coli on September 5. Affected neighborhoods included the area of Harlem Park/Sandtown-Winchester. Authorities advised residents in these areas to boil water before use due to the contamination.

By September 6, the “boil water advisory” stretched across West Baltimore and into the surrounding southwestern Baltimore County. The neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park is 96.7 percent Black, within the 62.8 percent Black city of Baltimore. This neighborhood also has a history of police brutality. In 2015, Freddie Gray died due to injuries sustained while in police custody after he was arrested in the area. A medical examiner ruled that his death was a homicide “because officers failed to follow safety guidelines.” In 2017, Harlem Park was locked down by police for nearly a week after a detective was murdered before testifying at a trial against other police officers. Some organizations questioned whether this action by the police was lawful.

Baltimore resident Rachel Viqueira was located in the boil water advisory zone. “While facing decades of underinvestment and neglect, these neighborhoods have simultaneously faced increasing racist police violence and surveillance,” she said. In 2020, Baltimore responded to the massive public protests surrounding George Floyd’s death by defunding the police budget by $22 million. But in 2021, Baltimore City increased police funding by $28 million. This not only canceled out the 2020 decrease but also tacked on an additional $8 million to the police budget.

“In Baltimore, and many other cities, the police budgets have ballooned at the expense of public investment in infrastructure, health, jobs, housing, and education,” Viqueira said.

Jackson, Mississippi, was under a boil water notice from July 29 to September 15. And from August 30 to September 5, the water stopped running for many of Jackson’s more than 150,000 residents, leaving public spaces like schools without running sinks or working toilets. Although water pressure has now been restored, the water remains contaminated.

Derykah Watts, who distributed water to Jackson residents as part of her student group Jackson Water Crisis Advocacy Team, said, “This is a reality that Jackson has faced for a very long time. I know growing up, I remember always hearing my mother say, ‘Oh, we’re on boil water notice this week, don’t use the water [straight from the tap].’”

Jackson is 82.5 percent Black, and this water crisis is only the latest in a chain of failures in the city’s underfunded water system. The roots of the water crisis originate in the era immediately following the racial desegregation of schools in Jackson in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Following desegregation, white residents left the city en masse. From 1960 to 1990, the white population residing in Jackson shrunk by 6,000. White departure meant that white residents, historically more well-off than descendants of Black people who were enslaved, would no longer constitute a large portion of the tax base for city funding.

Instead of finding concrete solutions to address the water crisis resulting from systemic racism, both the city of Jackson and the state of Mississippi have been considering privatizing the city’s water supply following the crisis. “We’ve already seen how privatization of Texas’ electrical grid meant massive shut-offs of heat in the middle of a winter storm,” said local activist Bezal Jupiter. “People lost their power, people froze, and some people even died [as many as 246]. Do we want the same future for Jackson’s water system?”

A Water Crisis That Never Ended

The majority-Black city of Flint, Michigan, made headlines in 2016 when it was revealed that for two years, the state government had been covering up the fact that residents were actively being poisoned by lead in their water supply. Six years later, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said that the amount of lead in the water complies with state and federal standards, yet scientists insist that no amount of lead in water is safe. And as of April of 2022, the government was yet to replace 1,800 lead pipes.

“[Governments] will fund rich white communities for infrastructure upgrades, but they absolutely won’t do it for cities like Flint, Baltimore, and Jackson,” said Mitchell Bonga, a law clerk at Goodman, Hurwitz and James, a law firm that filed a class action lawsuit against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder for his role in the Flint crisis.

‘They Could Have Done It All Along’

In the neighboring city of Detroit, which also has a majority-Black, low-income population, residents who cannot pay their water bills have been struggling against water shut-offs. “People can’t afford the water bill [in Detroit],” said local activist and Detroit resident Tharron Combs. “People sometimes owe hundreds of dollars in debt to the city for their water bill and when it gets shut off, obviously it’s a public health crisis.”

The city imposed a moratorium on water shut-offs for the pandemic, extending it through 2022. But although the mayor announced his intention to end water shutoffs “once and for all,” the moratorium will expire at the end of the year. “They actually put [shut-offs] on pause for the pandemic, which kind of exposed one of the contradictions of capitalism,” said Combs. “They could have done it all along, and just let people have access to clean water.

“[People] can’t afford their water, or their water is unclean when they can afford it. They don’t have access to food. And this is not a condition that’s really unique to Detroit. This is the case in really any major Black city in the country… Clearly, it’s environmental racism all the way down,” said Combs.

This article was produced in partnership by Peoples Dispatch and Globetrotter.

Is the U.S. Legal System at War With Its People?

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The very laws and government agencies created to protect the people in the United States are increasingly being weaponized against those who are often marginalized in society: people of color, the poor, and the working class. In just the last few months, there have been many incidents of this kind of violent abuse of power.

On July 28, the state of Alabama performed a “botched” execution on Joe Nathan James Jr., who journalists believe may have suffered medical malpractice akin to “torture” for hours before his death. On August 12, around midnight, a police officer threatened to kill a Black pregnant woman during a traffic stop in Florida. On August 18, far-right-wing Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis announced that 20 formerly incarcerated people would be arrested for the crime of voting, as the U.S. severely restricts the right to vote for the tens of millions of former prisoners. Within the same week, three police officers were captured on video brutally beating a homeless man in Arkansas on August 21.

“We’re in a state of genocidal war,” said former political prisoner Jalil Muntaqim to Peoples Dispatch. Muntaqim was and still is a fighter for Black liberation who spent 49 years in prison, which activists claim was due to his political work as a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. Alongside the label of political prisoner, Muntaqim also identifies himself as a prisoner of war.

The belief shared by many that the U.S. is at war with a subset of its own people is not a fringe idea. “End the War on Black People” is a policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives, a major organization within the Black Lives Matter movement. “Stop the War on Black America” was a popular slogan in several uprisings against police brutality, from the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 to Amir Locke’s murder in 2022.

In recent months alone, there has been enough evidence to support this belief that the U.S. is waging a war against its people.

Who Polices the Police?

According to the data project Mapping Police Violence, police killed at least 1,144 people in the U.S. in 2021, which is approximately three people per day. Every few weeks there is a police murder that triggers mass outrage, such as the killing of Jayland Walker who was found with more than 60 bullet wounds on his body, or Amir Locke who was killed seconds after waking up, or 15-year-old Brett Rosenau who was burned alive during a botched SWAT-team raid.

Two cases of police brutality have generated outrage most recently. In Florida on August 12, police officer Jason DeSue was driving in his car when he told Ebony Washington, a Black mother who was four months pregnant and driving with her three children, to pull over for speeding. Instead of following instructions immediately, Washington waited until reaching a well-lit area to pull over. “It was dark [and I was] with my kids. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be able to not have anyone else around,” she said afterward in an interview.

DeSue reacted drastically to Washington’s decision. Body camera footage shows DeSue telling her over loudspeakers, “Pull the vehicle over, or I’ll put you into the ground.” Once Washington did finally pull over, DeSue pulled out his gun. He then handcuffed her roughly despite her pregnancy. DeSue eventually released Washington after giving her a ticket for speeding.

Nino Brown, a longtime activist against police brutality and a fighter for the freedom of political prisoners, said, “That this police officer came at her [Washington] ‘guns blazing’ with his weapon already drawn tells us everything you need to know about how the police treat African Americans in this country: the police operate as a Gestapo force in our communities—they shoot first and ask questions never.”

video of three Arkansas police officers brutally beating Randall Worcester, taken on August 21, went viral. Despite being the victim of a brutal assault, Worcester was the one charged with “second-degree battery, resisting arrest, refusal to submit, possessing an instrument of crime, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, terroristic threatening and second-degree assault,” according to KARK.

DeSue resigned after drawing scorn for pulling a gun on Washington, and the three officers in Arkansas—Thell Riddle, Levi White, and Zack King—have now been suspended. This is the extent of their accountability thus far, even though some people are demanding criminal charges against the three police officers.

The fact that these officers are facing any punishment at all may be related to the existence of video evidence, which in past cases of police violence, such as in George Floyd’s murder, generated enough outrage to result in police accountability. Without video evidence, police often take charge of the narrative, labeling brutality with insidious neutral terms such as “officer-involved shooting” rather than “police killing.” Before the video of Floyd’s murder was released to the world, the Minneapolis Police Department press release of May 26, 2020 read, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”

Persecution of Prisoners Follows Them to the Grave

There is an untenable double standard of justice for police officers who act with legalized impunity and those they ostensibly protect and serve. Although police rarely face criminal charges for brutality, people who are convicted of a crime, many of whom are racially marginalized and are in deep poverty, are punished mercilessly by the state.

Such is the case for prisoners who face the death penalty, which in the U.S. is most commonly carried out by administering a lethal injection. Although this method appears to be humane, death by lethal injection has been increasingly proven to be a torturous process. As the death penalty comes under more scrutiny, major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer are banning the use of their drugs in lethal injections. As a result, states such as Alabama are turning to lower-quality medications, like midazolam, which according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, “is not an appropriate drug to be used for execution purposes.” As Dunham told the Independent, “Studies now show this three-drug process [of lethal injection] is the equivalent to waterboarding, suffocation and being chemically burned at the stake.”

Even beyond the pain and suffering caused by the contents of the lethal injection, corrections departments have botched executions. Journalist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in the Atlantic about how after prisoner Joe Nathan James Jr. was executed using lethal injection, an autopsy revealed that the Alabama Department of Corrections took hours to find an entry point for the injection, torturing James in the process. “My initial impression of James was of someone whose hands and wrists had been burst by needles, in every place one can bend or flex,” Bruenig wrote.

Meanwhile, many of those who were incarcerated at one point may find that their state-sanctioned punishments are not over yet. This was the case for the 20 people, all formerly incarcerated, who were recently arrested in Florida for so-called voter fraud. As NPR reported, however, “According to court documents, though, some of the 20 individuals told law enforcement officials that they thought they were able to vote when they cast ballots.” (In Florida, voting rights were recently restored to felons except those convicted of murder or a sexual offense cannot vote—the latter point cited by Governor DeSantis in response to criticism of the recent disenfranchisement crackdown.) Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told Democracy Now that Floridians “are now being dragged from their homes in handcuffs because all they ever wanted to do was participate in democracy.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis bragged about the arrests, stating, “Today’s [August 18] actions send a clear signal to those who are thinking about ballot harvesting or fraudulently voting. If you commit an elections crime, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

A Cruel Double Standard

DeSantis’ words are telling. The so-called “elections crimes” will be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” and yet there is still no word about criminal charges against officers Jason DeSue, Thell Riddle, Levi White and Zack King for the violent crimes of assault and battery they committed. Meanwhile, despite “cruel and unusual punishment” being prohibited as per the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prisoners are enduring torturous executions.

Some argue that torture, execution, imprisonment, and brutality against racially marginalized, poor, and working-class people amounts to war. Some, like Muntaqim, have worked to hold the entire U.S. state accountable for genocide, and have sought to question the legitimacy of the laws and agencies governing the people in the United States. Muntaqim said, “It’s important for us to recognize that we, Black people in this country, must seek out other means of survival. Other means of prosperity. Other means from which we can govern ourselves.”

This article was produced in partnership by Peoples Dispatch and Globetrotter.