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Drug Wars: Revolution, Embargo, and the Politics of Scarcity in Cuba, 1959–1964


The Cuban Revolution of 1959 ushered in many radical changes, both socio-economic and political. Yet the macropolitical upheaval of the period also manifested in concrete ways in the lives of ordinary Cubans. The sudden scarcity of everyday medications, closely linked to diplomatic tensions with the United States, was one such outcome. This article traces the transnational battles provoked by the sudden disappearance of US prescription drugs from Cuban shelves. It seeks to understand pharmaceutical shortages not only as a political side effect but also as a social reality, which provided a venue for the articulation of new forms of sociability and body politics.

Spanish abstract

La Revolución Cubana de 1959 marcó el comienzo de muchos cambios radicales, tanto socioeconómicos como políticos. Ahora bien, las convulsiones macropolíticas del momento también se manifestaron de forma concreta en las vidas de cubanos ordinarios. La repentina escasez de medicamentos diarios, vinculada estrechamente a las tensiones diplomáticas con los Estados Unidos, fue una de ellas. Este artículo rastrea las batallas transnacionales provocadas por la repentina desaparición de drogas farmacéuticas norteamericanas de los anaqueles cubanos. El material trata de entender las carencias farmacéuticas no sólo como un efecto político sino como una realidad social que proveyó un espacio para la articulación de nuevas formas de sociabilidad y políticas alrededor del cuerpo.

Portuguese abstract

A Revolução Cubana de 1959 marcou o início de muitas mudanças radicais, tanto socioeconômicas quanto políticas. Contudo, a convulsão macropolítica do período também manifestou-se de forma concreta nas vidas dos cidadãos cubanos comuns. A escassez repentina de medicamentos cotidianos, relacionada diretamente com tensões diplomáticas com os Estados Unidos, foi um destes resultados. Este artigo revisita as batalhas transnacionais provocadas pelo desaparecimento repentino de medicamentos estadunidenses das prateleiras cubanas. Busca-se compreender a escassez de itens farmacêuticos, não apenas como um efeito colateral, mas também como uma realidade social que proporcionou um palco para a articulação de novas formas de sociabilidade e corpo-política.

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Charles L. Briggs , ‘“All Cubans Are Doctors!”: News Coverage of Health and Bioexceptionalism in Cuba’, Social Science and Medicine, 73 (2011), pp. 1037–44

P. Sean Brotherton , Revolutionary Medicine: Health and the Body in Post-Soviet Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012)

James W. McGuire and Laura B. Frankel , ‘Mortality Decline in Cuba, 1900–1959: Patterns, Comparisons, and Causes’, Latin American Research Review, 40: 2 (2005), pp. 83116

P. Sean Brotherton , Revolutionary Medicine: Health and the Body in Post-Soviet Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012)

Marco Ramos , ‘Psychiatry, Authoritarianism, and Revolution: The Politics of Mental Illness during Military Dictatorships in Argentina, 1966–1983’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 87: 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 250–78

John A. Gronbeck-Tedescho , Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left, 1930–1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Adriana Petryna , Andrew Lakoff and Arthur Kleinman (eds.), Global Pharmaceuticals: Ethics, Markets, Practices (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)

Jeremy A. Greene , ‘What's in a Name? Generics and the Persistence of the Pharmaceuticals Brand in American Medicine’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 66: 4 (October 2011), pp. 468506

Ken Shadlen , ‘Patents and Pills, Power and Procedure: The North-South Politics of Public Health in the WTO’, Studies in Comparative International Development, 39: 3 (2004), pp. 76108

Cori Hayden , ‘A Generic Solution? Pharmaceuticals and the Politics of the Similar in Mexico’, Current Anthropology, 48: 4 (August 2007), pp. 475–95

J. Sinclair and Anna Cristina Pertierr (eds.), Consumer Culture in Latin America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Alena Ledeneva , ‘ Blat and Guanxi: Informal Practices in Russia and China’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 50: 1 (2008), pp. 118–44

Liviu Chelcea , ‘The Culture of Shortage during State-Socialism: Consumption Practices in a Romanian Village in the 1980s’, Cultural Studies, 16: 1 (2002), pp. 1643

Hanna Garth , ‘Things Became Scarce: Food Availability and Accessibility in Santiago de Cuba Then and Now’, NAPA Bulletini, 32: 1 (2009), pp. 178–92

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Journal of Latin American Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-216X
  • EISSN: 1469-767X
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-latin-american-studies
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