Philips’ Double Betrayal

The United States owns the most patents in the world. It has stolen scientists from every country, developed or developing, who are undertaking research in a myriad of spheres, from the production of weapons of mass destruction to medicines and medical equipment. For that reason, the economic and technological blockade is not something that merely serves as a pretext for blaming the empire for our own difficulties.

Public healthcare is one of the most advanced fields in our country, despite the fact that the United States stole close to 50% of the doctors who had graduated from the only university in Cuba, a figure in excess of 5,000, many of whom lacked employment.

In that area, one of the most beautiful pages of international cooperation on the part of the Cuban Revolution was written, initiated thanks to a group of doctors who were sent to the recently-independent Algeria almost half a century ago. That policy has not ended, and in that highly humane field our country enjoys universal recognition.

No one supposes that it has been an easy task. The United States has done everything possible to prevent it from happening. During the time that has passed, it has made maximum efforts to sabotage it. It applied against Cuba all possible variants of its criminal economic blockade which, later on, in virtue of the Helms-Burton Act, acquired an extraterritorial nature during the administration of Bill Clinton.

When the socialist bloc collapsed and, months later, its principal bastion the Soviet Union disintegrated, Cuba decided to keep on fighting. By then, our people had acquired a high level of awareness and political culture.

In 1992, Hugo Chávez led a military uprising against the bourgeois oligarchic government of the Punto Fijo pact that had pillaged Bolívar’s homeland for more than three decades. He suffered imprisonment, just as we did. He visited Cuba in 1994 and years later, with the full support of his people, he assumed the presidency and initiated the Bolivarian Revolution.

The Venezuelan people, like that of Cuba, soon had to confront the hostility of the United States, which planned the fascist coup d’état in 2002 that was defeated by the people and revolutionary military personnel. Months later, came the oil coup, creating the most difficult moment and one in which, once again, the leader, the people and the Venezuelan military were outstanding. Chávez and Venezuela offered us total solidarity in the midst of the Special Period and we have given them ours.

At that time, our country had no less than 60,000 specialized doctors, more than 150,000 experienced teachers and a people who had written brilliant internationalist pages. After the oil coup, the river of our cooperative workers in education and healthcare programs began to flow, and they cooperated with the Bolivarian Revolution in one of the most profound and rapid social programs undertaken in any Third World country.

I cite these precedents because they are indispensable when it come to judging the treachery of imperialism and comprehending the issue that I am tackling today: the abandonment and betrayal of Cuba and Venezuela by what was a well-known and relatively prestigious European multinational: the Dutch transnational Philips, which specializes in the manufacture of medical equipment.

I wrote a Reflection on this subject two years ago – July 14, 2007 – but I did not want to mention that company by name. I still held out the hope that the situation would be rectified.

We had cooperated with the Venezuelan people in order to create one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Tens of thousands of specialized doctors and other Cuban healthcare professional had lent their services there. President During one of his visits to Cuba, Hugo Chávez, satisfied with the work of the first contingents who traveled to Venezuela to work within Barrio Adentro – the program aimed at providing healthcare services in the country’s poorest urban and rural areas – asked us to create a program that could benefit every sector of Venezuelan society, working class, middle class or the rich. This led to the emergence of the Advanced Technology Diagnosis Centers; these would complement the task of the 600 Comprehensive Diagnosis Centers which, like polyclinics with a wide range of services, with their laboratories and equipment, would support the Barrio Adentro doctors’ offices. A significant number of rehabilitation centers would assume the humane task of attending to any patient with physical or learning disabilities.

In virtue of this request from the president, we acquired the relevant equipment for 27 Advanced Technology Diagnosis Centers distributed throughout the 24 states of Venezuela, three of which possess two each because of the size of their populations.

It is standard practice for us to always purchase medical equipment from the most prestigious and advanced companies at world level. We even try to ensure the participation of at least two of the most specialized companies in the supply of the most complex equipment.

In this way, the most sophisticated and costly medical imaging equipment, such as multi-slice computed tomography (CT), nuclear magnetic resonance, diagnostic ultrasound and other similar machines were purchased from the German firm Siemens and the Dutch company Philips. Neither of the two produces all of the equipment but they do manufacture some of the most complex and sophisticated equipment. Both are in competition with each other in terms of quality and price. We acquired diagnostic equipment from the two companies for Venezuela and for Cuba, where we were developing a similar plan for medical services that had received very few resources in the most difficult years of the Special Period.

For more than 10 different specialties, we acquired equipment from the two companies for services in the two countries. I will not mention those of the German firm Siemens, which met its commitments. I will confine myself to Philips; this company supplied equipment for 12 specialties sharing the provision of the most important and costly items with the other company: 15 40-slice CT machines, 28 0.23 Tesla Nuclear Magnetic Resonance machines, eight tele-command stations for Urology, 37 3D diagnostic ultrasound machines, two neurological angiograms, two cardiology angiograms, two polygraphs, one double-headed gamma camera, three single-head gamma cameras, 250 mobile X-ray machines, 1,200 non-invasive monitors and 2,000 cardioversion monitors.

In total, 3,553 machines at a value of $72,762,694.

I personally participated in negotiations with these two companies for these purchases.

The prices discussed for each piece of equipment implied significant price reductions, given the quantity – the items for both Cuba and Venezuela together – and the fact that they were to be paid for in cash. It would not be possible to urgently acquire the goods as required, particularly in that country, given the accumulated needs of the poorest sectors of its total population, which numbered 27 million people at that time.

The most complex equipment were destined for the Advanced Technology Centers, the less sophisticated and plentiful items for the Barrio Adentro Diagnosis Centers, although they were not the only ones to use this equipment. Almost all of them were purchased at the beginning of 2006.

I became seriously ill at the end of July of that year. Philips supplied items until the end of 2006. In 2007, it stopped completely: not a single item was supplied.

In March of that year, a Cuban delegation was sent to Brazil where the Philips headquarters for Latin America – the branch that negotiated with Cuba – is located. They began to explain their difficulties. The Bush government had requested detailed information on equipment supplied to Cuba by their company, alleging that some of them contained programs and, occasionally, components bearing a yanki patent, and Philips provided the information requested on the purchases made by Cuba and Venezuela. There had never been any problem with that before.

The director of Philips in Brazil textually informed the Cuban delegation: “There is brutal intransigence on the part of the U.S. government in relation to regulations regarding equipment and the request for permits with respect to Cuba.

“I know that the problem is affecting the Comandante’s plan. Our organization is being affected and threatened. All our organizations are very scared.” He immediately reiterated: “They are very scared.”

Finally, they added that they wished to cooperate and find solutions.

In mid-July 2007, in a so-called White House Conference on the Americas, Bush, the secretary of state, and other U.S. government leaders “talked nineteen to the dozen” according to an AP report, on issues of education and healthcare. It seemed unreal. They were promising to distribute healthcare services throughout Latin America.

They placed special emphasis on the Confort, a former aircraft carrier converted into the “biggest hospital boat in the world,” according to the report, which was to visit each country in this hemisphere south of the United States for 10 days at a time. That was their healthcare program. What they did not say at the time, was that, in Venezuela, they were sabotaging the most serious healthcare program ever proposed for a Third World country.

Despite the coincidence of the timing, at that moment I did not wish to directly tackle the Philips problem. The company had promised to resolve the problem the following March. I still held out the hope that it could be rectified.

I limited myself to writing in that very Reflection: “The problem is that the United States cannot do what Cuba is doing. On the contrary, it is brutally pressuring the manufacturing companies of the excellent medical equipment that is being supplied to our country to prevent them from replacing certain computer programs or providing some spare parts that are under U.S. patents. I could cite concrete cases and the names of the companies. It is repugnant…”

Despite Philips’ solemn promise to Cuba, the rest of 2007 passed by, as well as the whole of 2008 and half of 2009 without a single piece of equipment arriving from that company.

In June 2009, after paying a fine of 100,000 euros to the Barack Obama government, not so distant from the practices of his illustrious predecessor, Philips deigned to communicate that it was about to provide equipment for Cuba.

On the other hand, nobody has recompensed the Cuban people, or the Venezuelan patients of our doctors in the Barrio Adentro program and those attending the Advanced Technology Diagnostic Centers for the human damages that have occurred.

As is logical, we have not acquired a single piece of equipment from Philips since the last purchase in early 2006.

On the other hand, we have cooperated with Venezuela in purchasing medical equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars for its national healthcare network, with a wide range of sophisticated state of cutting-edge equipment from other prestigious European and also Japanese companies. I wanted to believe that that company would make an effort to meet its commitment.

Venezuela now possesses modern equipment in its public hospital network; the richest private clinics will only have been able to acquire some of them. Now, all the rest will depend on the country’s efficiency in its services. The Venezuelan president is seriously interested in achieving this objective. I believe that it will do so very well if it mitigates the Venezuelan custom of purchasing U.S. medical equipment, not on account of its quality – which is very good although with less demanding regulations than those of Europe – but because of what lies at the heart of the policy of this country, capable of blocking the supply of equipment as it did with Cuba.

Of course, we have dispatched to the Venezuelan Diagnosis Centers, the Advanced Technology Centers and others where our doctors are in attendance, equipment of known international makes such as Siemens, Carl Zeiss, Drager, SMS, Schwind, Topcon, Nihon Kohden, Olympus and other European and Japanese companies, some of which were founded more than 100 years ago.

Now that Bolívar’s homeland, which Martí asked to serve, is more threatened than ever by imperialism, the organization, work and efficiency of our efforts must be greater than ever; not just in the healthcare sector, but in all the fields of our cooperation.

Fidel Castro Ruz
September 6, 2009
7.17 p.m.