Cuban health officials have warned citizens against taking medication believed to be smuggled in from Haiti after reports of adverse side effects, as the island becomes even more dependent on the black market during the pandemic.
On January 31, a report by the state-run Juventud Rebelde stated that several residents from the eastern city of Holguín and the surrounding area had experienced grave reactions after taking what they believed to be anti-anxiety medications, Chlordiazepoxidem and Nitrazepam. The medications had been purchased on the black market.
After a clinical examination, Deisy Guerrero, a state health official, concluded that the pills did not correspond to the name printed on the packaging and warned the public against taking medications coming from abroad that have not been certified in Cuba.
On October 20, state-owned media reported that tighter restrictions on pharmaceuticals, including Chlordiazepoxide, have been imposed in Holguín pharmacies due to concerns of “irrational use, overconsumption and illegalities.”
According to statements by those who had suffered from bad side effects, the sellers told them that the pills came from Haiti, although Juventud Rebelde indicated that how exactly they entered the country remained unclear.
Medication purchased in Cuba's black market has been sourced to Haiti in the past. In 2018, according to Miami-based broadcaster Radio Televisión Martí, Haiti had become one of the cheapest and easiest routes to travel in order to smuggle health-related goods, including medications, vitamins, anesthetics and Botox, all of which were later sold on the black market.
Since Cuba’s borders opened on October 12, flights between Holguín and nearby Haiti have resumed, although it is still unknown how smugglers were able to get this medication past the airport’s very strict customs, when imports of such products are banned in Cuba.
During the pandemic, both medication and medical equipment have become more commonplace on the Cuban black market as medicines have simply not been available to purchase. In June 2020, 116 official medications were recorded as unavailable on the island, according to Diario de Cuba.
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The Cuban government has sought to dissuade the use of the black market, even cracking down on resellers who purchase goods from dollar stores and sell them on at a mark-up.
But while a recent package of reforms has raised the salaries of public workers and retirees, it has also increased the price of basic goods, including medicine, which is likely to increase black market dependency for millions of Cubans. A massive expansion of the private sector, announced in February 2021, will take time to have its impact felt and is unlikely to rapidly alleviate this immediate need.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation, with state manufacturers not able to import raw materials needed to produce medication and gas shortages hindering the transportation of supplies to hospitals and pharmacies. Worse, sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump blocked vital COVID-19 medical aid from reaching the island.
In response to these shortages and the prevalence of black-market drugs, health officials have struck on an unconvincing approach, asking Cubans to seek herbal remedies.