The following is the full text of the speech delivered by Cuban President Fidel Castro at the Palace of Nations in Geneva on the occasion of the presentation to him of the Health for All Medal by the World Health Organization, Thursday, May 14, 1998.

If my memory is correct – Hilary Clinton also made a speech at the same time –  and there was a moderated Q&A afterwards.


Your excellencies, officials of the WHO, distinguished delegates.

All praise to the World Health Organization, which together with UNICEF, has helped to save the lives of hundreds of millions of children and millions of mothers, which has relieved the suffering and saved the lives of many more millions of human beings.

These two institutions — together with the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Development Program, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the World Food Program, the United Nations Population Fund, UNESCO, and other organizations so bitterly opposed by those who would like to erase from the face of the earth the noble ideas which inspired the creation of the United Nations – – have made a decisive contribution to the establishment of a universal awareness of the serious problems of the world today and the great challenges which we have before us.

According to the calculations of renowned economists, the world economy grew six-fold and the production of wealth and services grew from less than five trillion to more than twenty-nine trillion dollars between 1950 and 1997. Why then is it still the case that each year, 12 million children under five years of age die — that is to say 33,000 per day — of whom the overwhelming majority could be saved?

Nowhere in the world, in no act of genocide, in no war, are so many people killed per minute, per hour and per day as those who are killed by hunger and poverty on our planet — 53 years after the creation of the United Nations.

The children who die and could be saved are almost 100% poor and of those who survive, we must ask why 500,000 are left blind every year for lack of a simple vitamin which costs less than a pack of cigarettes per year? Why are 200 million children under five years of age undernourished? Why are there 250 million children and adolescents working? Why do 110 million not attend primary school and 275 million fail to attend secondary school? Why do two million girls become prostitutes each year? Why in this world — which already produces almost 30 trillion dollars worth of goods and services per year — do one billion 300 million human beings live in absolute poverty, receiving less than a dollar a day — when there are those who receive more than a million dollars a day? Why do 800 million lack the most basic health services? Why is it that of the 50 million people who die each year in the world, whether adults or children, 17 million — that is approximately 50,000 per day — die of infectious diseases which could almost all be cured — or, even better, be prevented — at a cost which is sometimes no more than one dollar per person?

How much is a human life worth? What is the cost to humanity of the unjust and intolerable order which prevails in the world? 585,000 women died during pregnancy or in childbirth in 1996, 99% of them in the Third World, 70,000 due to abortions carried out in poor conditions, 69,000 of them in Latin America, Africa and Asia? Apart from the huge differences in the quality of life between rich and poor countries, people in rich countries live an average of 12 years longer than people in poor countries. And even within some nations, the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest is between 20 and 35 years. It is really sad to think that just in the area of maternal and post-natal services, in spite of the efforts of the WHO and UNICEF over the last 50 years, the number of deaths from lack of medical services has been 600 million children and 25 million mothers who could have survived. That would have required a more rational and more just world.

In that same post-war period, in the area of military expenditure, 30 trillion dollars were spent. According to UN estimates, the cost of providing universal access to basic health care services would be 25 billion dollars per year — just three percent of the 800 billion dollars which are currently devoted to military expenditure — and this after the end of the Cold War.

There is no let up in arms sales, which have the sole purpose of killing, while the medicines which should be provided to save lives become increasingly expensive. The market in medicines in 1995 reached 280 billion dollars. The developed countries, with 14.6% of the world’s population — 824 million inhabitants — consume 82% of the medicines. The rest of the world — 4 billion 815 million people — consume only 18%.

Prices of medicines are prohibitive for the Third World, where only the privileged sectors can afford them. The control of patents and markets by the large transnational companies enables them to raise those prices as much as ten times above their production costs. Some of the latest antibiotics are priced at 50 times their production cost.

And the world’s population continues to grow. We are now almost six billion and growing at a rate of 80 million per year. It took two million years to reach the first billion people, a hundred years to reach the second billion, and 11 years to reach the last billion. In 50 years, there will be four billion new inhabitants on the planet.

Old illnesses have returned and new ones are appearing: AIDS, the Ebola virus, Anthrax, BSE or mad cow disease — more than thirty according to the specialists. Either we defeat AIDS or AIDS will destroy many Third World countries. No poor person can pay the 10,000 dollars per person each year that current treatments cost — which merely prolong life without actually curing the disease.

The climate is changing. The seas and the atmosphere are heating up. The air and water are becoming contaminated. Soil is eroding, deserts are growing, forests are disappearing and water is becoming scarce. Who can save our species? The blind, uncontrollable law of the market? Neo-liberal globalization, alone and for its own sake, like a cancer which devours human beings and destroys nature? That cannot be the way forward or at least it can only last for a brief period in history. The WHO is fighting heroically against these realities and it also has the duty of being optimistic.

As a Cuban and a revolutionary, I share their optimism. With a current infant mortality rate of 7.2 per thousand live births during the first year; a doctor for every 176 inhabitants — which is the highest level in the world — and a life expectancy of more than 75 years of age, Cuba has fulfilled the WHO Health for All program for the year 2000 since 1983 — in spite of the cruel blockade it has suffered for almost 40 years, in spite of being a poor, Third World country. The attempt to commit genocide against our country has only made us redouble our efforts and increased our will to survive. The world can also fight and win.

Thank you very much.


  • One thought on “Castro’s speech at the 50th WHA, May 1998

    • 14/12/2016 at 11:05 am

      Great to recall this speech by Fidel Castro in 1998! I enjoyed re-reading it.
      It goes to show that you don’t need to be rich to provide adequate and appropriate nutrition to infants and young children.


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