Cuba Experiences Condom Shortage

There's concern that without access to this important prevention method, incidences of both STDs and unintended pregnancies will go up across Cuba.

Cuba is facing a condom shortage, but it is not quite clear why. Condom via Shutterstock

Cuba, which has been subject to U.S. embargoes since the 1960s, has over the years experienced frequent shortages of commercial goods, including food. But now the island nation 90 miles south of Florida is facing a new challenge: Residents have begun to notice that stores are running out of condoms.  

According to the Guardian, pharmacies in the central province of Villa Clara began running out of condoms in March, and the shortage has now affected the Havana suburbs as well. The government-run center for sex education, which is called Cenesex (or Centro Nacional de Educación Sexual) and run by President Raul Castro’s daughter Mariela, has ordered that the remainder of the supply be allocated to areas with high HIV rates and that priority be given to individuals who are known to be HIV-positive. Cuba has an active HIV-prevention program, but rates of the disease have been increasing in recent years because of an increase in prostitution and sex tourism.

Though this allocation makes sense, it means that pharmacies do not have condoms, and people who are not considered “at risk” cannot access this contraceptive method. Pharmacy owners contacted by a Havana-based blogger said they did not know when they would be getting more condoms.

It is unclear why the shortage is happening, and the government has not made an official statement. One explanation, however, came from Juan Carlos Gonzalez, director of the state-run wholesaler Ensume, which is responsible for obtaining and supplying most of the nation’s government-subsidized condoms. He told the Guardian that Ensume actually has more than a million condoms in its warehouses but workers need to re-label the condoms before distributing them. According to Gonzalez, Cuba’s medical agency, known as Cecmed, made a decision two years ago that the expiration date on millions of condoms imported from China was incorrect. Though the packages said the condoms expired in 2012, Cecmed ordered them to be re-labelled with an expiration date in 2014. Gonzalez’s staff has been busy re-labeling the condoms but can only do 4,200 condoms a day, which does not even meet the demand of Villa Clara province, let alone the whole country.

Of course, this also raises questions about the safety of these condoms once they hit shelves. If stored properly, condoms can last between four and five years after manufacturing, but given the re-labeling it is unclear how old these condoms really are. Moreover, at the slow rate at which they are being re-labelled and distributed, even the 2014 expiration date may have passed by the time they get into the hands of Cubans who need them.

The shortage is also driving the price of condoms up. A single condom has gone from just a few cents to $1.30, which is a day’s wages for a typical Cuban worker. By comparison, in the United States a single condom purchased in a retail drug store costs about $0.63, though prices do vary.

Condoms are the only form of contraception that also protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The concern, therefore, is that without access to this important prevention method, incidences of both STDs and unintended pregnancies will go up across Cuba.