Condom crisis in Cuba: abstinence or reuse
By Glenda Boza Ibarra and Sabrina Lopez Camaraza (El Toque)
HOURS OF HAVANA – Yusimi would like to reuse condoms. Her body demands sex, but her mind demands restraint. She had very little sex without a condom: especially as a teenager – naive and irresponsible.
Yu, as she is known, used her last condoms months ago: “Momentos brand, they are really horrible, with little lubrication, and they are tight according to men… but they were the only ones available.”
His statement is confirmed by the Granma newspaper’s reference to an investigation by the National Center for the Prevention of STIs and HIV / AIDS: Cubans prefer the Vigor brand.
Yu does not have a stable sexual partner, but she does have sex with two men “she alternates between” and helps him with things around the house. I don’t want a husband, just someone to calm my “bodily desires”. Having sex with different people is not a sin, but “having sex without a condom is a sin” for Yu. She must have sinned in recent months.
Previously, she received condoms from the sexually transmitted infections ward of her doctor’s office (Yu is a rehabilitation graduate): “the good guys, the donations, the” silver ones “or Vigor Max for men, which are of high quality and are lubricated. However, there are only “posters and leaflets” in these offices now.
“It sometimes makes me laugh when I go to a pharmacy with posters plastered all over the wall promoting safe sex and the use of a condom, but they haven’t been selling them for months now,” she says.
Expensive illicit market condoms
Safe sex in Cuba is expensive these days. In the illicit market, individual condoms cost between 15 and 60 pesos, a rising price given that they have been in short supply for a long time.
You cannot find them in international pharmacies or in clinics that sell in US dollars. The supply on the black market is also sometimes short and when they are sold you can easily tell which ones have been brought in from overseas or have been ‘diverted’ from donations from international organizations such as the WHO / PAHO. or the people of the United Nations. Fund (UNFPA).
It was UNFPA that donated 501,120 male condoms to Cuba in August 2020, intended for sexual and reproductive health services. The donation came in response to a request from the UNFPA office in Havana, due to the demand for contraception in Cuba. However, this half a million condoms represents only about 8% of the approximately 6 million condoms that are used each year in Cuba.
Most condoms sold through the nationwide pharmacy network are imported by the Medical Supplies Company (EMSUME). Since the end of 2019, the drop in overseas purchases has been the main reason for the shortages.
“In 2019, we only got 10 million and something from EMSUME out of the 20 million planned, which means we only got 53%,” said Onecys Perdomo, Commercial Director of Medicine Commercialization. and Distribution Company, which is responsible for the distribution of drugs to the provinces.
The 2019 Health Statistical Yearbook found that total condom coverage was 76.8%, the lowest figure since 2004, while it was the same percentage. In fact, national condom coverage has not fallen below 77% of demand since 1995, and condoms cover only 14% of contraceptive methods used to prevent pregnancy: intrauterine device, tubal sterilization, contraceptive injections and others.
This is not the first time that Cuba has suffered a condom crisis. In 2014, there were shortages due to labeling and expiration date issues of an entire batch from China.
Over the past three years, state media have reported a shortage of condoms, with imports being the main reason for the shortage of supply: whether it is a direct consequence of the US blockade or delays in payment and planning. of State.
In Cienfuegos, for example, marketing “fell by around 176,905 units, or around 23% less than what was sold in the first four months of 2017”. Meanwhile, the situation in Pinar del Rio only got worse in the last quarter of 2019, when only 595,760 units (boxes with three condoms) were sold that year, 79% of the annual plan.
“This product – which is so much in demand and essential” was available on the community pharmacy network from January to October 2019. Supplies dwindled that month, and there was only enough for 18 days. In November, there were only three days, and they appeared in only 29 of these establishments. At the beginning of December, this product was in total shortage… and it continues to be the case, ”explained to Radio Guama Hector Rodriguez, an official of the medical department of the public health council of Pinar del Rio.
Reports in other provinces such as Santiago de Cuba, Villa Clara and Sancti Spiritus (SS), also indicate a nationwide condom shortage, which only covers 5% of monthly demand in some areas.
With or without condom
In the not too distant past, condoms in Cuba were used as birthday balloons, for fishing, for wine making, as hair ties, and were used to give shine or simulate a kind of “varnish” for hair. wooden pieces.
Alexis Mourelo, who is the originator of the Open Mind blog on same-sex relationships and safer sex, recently found himself faced with the dilemma of violating what he preaches or not.
“I bought a pack of 200 ‘overseas’ condoms a year ago. I only have about three left. They lasted me a long time because I had a boyfriend for almost a year. We used them at first, but then we were both checked, we were healthy and we trusted each other, so we did it without protection, ”he says.
In a special report on this issue, Alma Mater magazine recommended recycling condoms, with an illustration. They should be washed without detergents or thinners, which should guarantee their lifespan, as they have been “electronically tested”.
The idea of washing condoms has been on the minds of many Cubans. Others see plastic bags as an option – half joke, half seriously.
Roger and Rocio have a stable relationship, they live together in their own house and do not expect to have children yet. The shortages have not yet affected them. His father is a doctor in Portugal and he puts away the condoms he gets at his workplace.
“I keep them in times of crisis,” explains the boyfriend, who adds that they mainly practice interrupted coitus because of a shortage of the most effective contraception.
“I started to evaluate the use of the goat stomach. My grandmother gave me this little advice. She told me that the rural guajiros used to use it before. You have to wash it well and put it on, although it is more difficult to do and the goats cannot be found, ”he laughs.
He is not, however, in the worst possible situation. Monogamy makes interrupted coitus an option, but Llilena can’t even contemplate that. She describes herself as an independent woman and feminist, and she defends her right to have different sexual partners; something that has become quite difficult lately.
“Condom shortages are a huge problem. You are at risk of STIs and unwanted pregnancy if you do not use them. For example, I wouldn’t like to have a child right now given the current situation here: the pandemic and the economic hardships, ”she said.
She says she had “a fear” at the start of the lockdown. She had very strong pain in her ovaries. She went to the doctor to rule out an ectopic pregnancy and was greeted at the door, explaining that all services were late due to COVID-19. She went home without getting any answers.
“It’s really hard when they restrict your right to have a free sex life, that this condom shortage seems to be encouraging you to get pregnant!” Cuba’s birth rates are dropping! “.
Magela is a trans woman in Ciego de Avila. She also suffers from condom shortages. “We are exposed to many diseases and this whole thing of ‘taking a cold shower to cool off’ is a big lie.”
Just a contraceptive barrier?
A study conducted in 2016 and 2017 revealed that there were socio-cultural and structural barriers with the persistence of social taboo and doubts, a perception of low risk among women with a stable partner, shortages in pharmacies, etc.
The results also proved that condoms sold in Cuba “are not at all attractive to specific tastes, which do not meet the demands of different sexes. The MSM group (men who have sex with men) require that condoms be purchased in different colors, flavors and textures because they find them more attractive for sex.
The non-existence of “non-traditional outlets (cafes, nightclubs, bars and others) established in recent years is an obstacle to better access to condoms in different places and at different times of the day,” the study says. .
Unmet demands also highlight: the lack of female condoms and lubricants on the market; very little variety of products (only Vigor and Momentos brands are sold); the lack of condom machines and legal regulations allowing the sale of condoms in private companies.
At the time of the study, the subsidized price of condoms (1 peso per box) was one of the things in his favor; however, with the shortages and higher prices on the black market, this is now another barrier to condom use.
Tamara Garcia also says that when she was pregnant in 2020, she had to bring her own condoms to OB-GYN appointments, for transvaginal ultrasounds or cervical checks.
“The doctor asked me to bring one if I had one because they were exhausted. They even used gloves sometimes, but luckily I had put the condoms away, ”she recalls.
While there is a will to promote safer sex in Cuba, the “disappearance” of condoms goes against the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and STIs, where millions are spent on treatment.
Condom shortages will not allow more births, as some people have suggested. Nor will it push Cubans to choose abstinence.
“When my supply ran out, a friend from Spain brought me flavored condoms and I’m getting by with those for now. Then I will have to buy them at an exorbitant price, ”explains Julian Ibañez, a resident of Villa Clara. “I have three left and I’m thinking of washing them.”
Read more about Cuba here on Havana Times.