Early each morning, Jesús Villalonga goes to the woods near his home in the Cuban province of Matanzas, east of Havana, to pick medicinal plants and retrieve his horse from nearby fields.
Villalonga, 77, is a curandero, a traditional healer. The horse is for his morning work, transporting people in a cart that serves as a taxi. Around noon, he returns home to the Naranjal neighborhood for daily consultations with neighbors. Their ailments determine the plants he will pick the next day.
Cuba has a long folk history of using medicinal plants in Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies and for the treatment of common ailments. Today, with the shortage of many prescription drugs, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, herbal medicines and alternative treatments such as acupuncture, cupping and massage therapy have become increasingly more important.
Cuba’s economy has been struggling for decades, exacerbated by mismanagement, longstanding US sanctions, the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s former benefactor – in 1991, and limited trade with friendly countries, including Venezuela, which has suffered its own economic crisis. Tighter US restrictions under the Trump administration have reduced travel to the island and reduced the amount of money and packages that can be sent from the mainland, both of which have been a source of medicine. More recently, the pandemic has hampered tourism, a vital source of revenue the government needs to buy essential supplies.
“There are shortages of everything,” says Richard Feinberg, a longtime Cuban researcher and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. “Cuba does not have the foreign currency to import medicine or many other things.”
Some Cubans grow their own medicinal herbs in the countryside or on small urban plots. Others consult curanderos like Villalonga or buy herbal medicines from government pharmacies and private entrepreneurs.
Villalonga started using natural remedies when he was 14 and says no one taught him the herbs – he taught himself. “I can’t turn my back on someone who needs healing,” he wrote in an email, adding that he was providing patients with alternative treatments during the pandemic. He calls his talent a gift from God and never charges for his services. Sometimes satisfied patients leave small gifts such as cigarettes or whatever they can spare.
As the pandemic drags on, Villalonga says he’s seeing many people suffering from stress. “Now it’s approaching two years with everyone stressed out, kids, old people, everyone.”
Stress, he says, tends to exacerbate the herpes zoster virus, commonly known as shingles, which can lay dormant in the body for years after a person has contracted chickenpox. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there are various theories as to why the chickenpox virus is reactivated, but people with weakened immune systems seem to be more susceptible to the painful shingles rash.
Depending on where the rash appears, Villalonga treats it with guava or guanabana leaves. He also collects leaves of the tua tua plant and boils them into a tea which he uses to treat various illnesses, such as diabetes and gastritis. Other favorite herbal remedies include sage for people with respiratory problems, cedar for lung ailments, bloodroot for cleansing the body, wild heliotrope for kidney stones, and lime and chamomile for ailments. of stomach.
Villalonga’s treatments always involve running her hands over patients’ bodies, a practice common to various religious traditions. Getting hands-on, says Villalonga, allows him to “feel” ailments. When he touches the back of a patient’s leg, for example, he says he can tell what has upset the person’s stomach so he can prepare a herbal remedy that will eliminate the obstructions in the digestive tract and promote healing.
The integration of green medicine in Cuba
The World Health Organization noted in a 2019 report on “traditional and complementary medicine” that Cuba has had a national health plan to integrate natural and traditional medicine into its health service delivery system since 1995. and also has a national research office in Havana to study natural medicine. medications.
Cuba began encouraging the use of herbal and alternative medicine during the economic crisis known as the Special Period, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its generous subsidies. The government continued to support green alternatives, manufacturing herbal medicines in specialized laboratories and distributing natural medicines through its network of pharmacies.
In the province of Las Tunas, for example, farmers grow plantains, passionflower, mint, guava, lemons, oregano and other herbs to supply five laboratories with more than 35,000 kilos of plant material per year that are processed into extracts, syrups, drops, creams and tinctures, depending on Grandmother, publication of the Cuban Communist Party. These products are often more readily available at public pharmacies than prescription drugs.
State-certified doctors routinely offer patients alternative treatments, and family doctors and nurses assigned to specific neighborhoods are encouraged to plant herb gardens near their offices.
When Maura Pérez Recio, 53, studied medicine from 1986 to 1992, natural medicines and alternative treatments were not part of the curriculum. Now Pérez, who works at Cuba’s National Institute of Endocrinology in Havana, is accredited for acupuncture and phytotherapy treatments and includes them in his therapeutic arsenal. She says she might prescribe various forms of garlic and onions to reduce lipid levels, preparations of moringa and basil as hypoglycemic agents for the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and linden and passionflower as sedatives.
During the pandemic, she says, a national campaign promoted the use of PrevengHo-Vir, a homeopathic medicine believed to boost the immune system, and Cuban doctors prescribed plants, such as turmeric, which have antiviral properties and boost the immune system. .
In an open space left by a collapsed building in Old Havana, Julio Bienvenido Cisnero is doing a good business in his small wooden house medical consultancyor doctor’s office, where he sells everything from sage to moringa, once touted as a miracle plan, especially for the treatment of ailments of the digestive system, by the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Bienvenido, 68, is licensed by the government to grow and sell medicinal plants. He pays a state fee to use the open space where he has run his business since May 2010. He grows some of the medicinal plants he sells and buys other herbs from suppliers who come from the countryside.
A handwritten sign in Spanish above his storefront says he offers herbal treatments for ‘kidney, liver, gallbladder, prostate, skin and other conditions’ .
Bienvenido says business has picked up during the pandemic. Some customers buy herbs to make their own teas, salves and other preparations to boost their immune system. He carefully counts the number of sheets they will need, wraps them in a sheet of old newspaper and explains the recipes to them. He also sells his own preparations. Among them, the one he calls the Titan, a drink combining seven medicinal plants: aloe vera, guanabana leaves, chaya, moringa, avocado leaves, candle and calabash leaves. The Titan, he says, cleanses the body.
Bienvenido says he heard about some herbal medicines from his grandmother and that the family’s knowledge of folk remedies dates back to an ancestor brought from the Congo during the slave trade to work in the sugar cane fields.
“All the knowledge of Africa has been passed down from generation to generation,” he says over the phone, adding that he updates his knowledge through reading, computer research and listening to a government radio broadcast. on green medicine.
Alternative medical practices are “a way to get back to nature,” Pérez says, “especially since people have the idea that herbal treatments cause fewer adverse effects than chemical drugs.”
Freelance journalist Mimi Whitefield, based in South Florida, covered Cuba, international business and other news from across Latin America for the Miami Herald. Follow her on Twitter @HeraldMimi.