ARTICLE: In the field of bio-technological research Cuban contribution is noteworthy, e.g., a drug, Interferon Alfa-2B has been used to combat the coronavirus - both inside the country and in China.
In this connection, the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), was set up in 1986. Among the thirty medicines the Chinese National Health Commission selected to fight the Coronavirus is a Cuban anti-viral drug, INTERFERON ALPHA 2b. Produced in China since 2003 by the enterprise ChangHeber, a Cuban-Chinese joint venture, it has proven effective for viruses with characteristics similar to those of Coronavirus.
Cuban biotech specialist Dr. Luis Herrera Martinez explains that "its use prevents aggravation and complications in patients, reaching that stage that ultimately can result in death." First developed and used the Interferons meant to arrest a deadly outbreak of the dengue virus in 1981 and catalyzed the development of now world-leading biotech industry. In 1981, the Biological Front, a professional inter-disciplinary forum, was set up to develop the industry in Cuba.
While most developing countries had little access to the new technologies (recombinant DNA, human gene therapy, bio-safety), Cuban biotechnology expanded and took on an increasingly strategic role in public health sector and national economic development. Despite the US blockade obstructing access to technologies, equipment, materials, finance, and even knowledge exchange, the fast track from research and innovation to trials and application began. Although final vaccine is being experimented, the Interferons are 'signaling' proteins produced and released by cells in response to infections that alert nearby cells to heighten anti-viral defenses. Now Interferon Alpha 2B has been requested by more than ten countries.
Now, for the impending 'collaboration missions,' almost 400 Cuban doctors and specialists are preparing for missions through training at the Pedro Kouri National Institute of Tropical Medicine at Havana-based institute which has been designated for treating confirmed Covid-19 cases, though there are so far few at home. Yet they are now closing borders and taking precautions like other nations.
Yet 'Cuban internationalism' has been criticized by many Western leaders and scholars, especially the US. For one thing, as a socialist state it is an anathema to conservative US regimes; and secondly, Fidel Castro's defiance and involvement in Africa and Latin America raised many eyebrows as it challenges the US hegemony of the Monroe Doctrine. It has been labeled as 'proxies', 'clients', 'surrogates' 'cat's paw' 'paladins' and other descriptions in Africa. And lately, with accusations of 'low quality' development, 'minting money,' 'filling its pockets' and 'creating guerrilla cells and indoctrinating people', the US has warned neighbors not to deal with the Cuban government and easily fall for their 'overtures of help' by 'scrutinizing' their agreements.
With all this, it is seldom realized that the Cuban brand of 'tropical communism' and Third World background are qualitatively different from Russian and East European Communism. The Cubans mingle easily with local people, live under austere conditions, have modest expectations and share common history of colonialism and exploitation. Besides, race and language make them more acceptable to many in Latin America. Incidentally, Spanish and Portuguese are cognate languages - spoken in Angola and Latin America.
Notwithstanding the criticism, the coronavirus cases in the US and New York state are exceeding exponentially despite the US as a leader in science and technology. No wonder, President Donald Trump's administration has sought help from international community to combat the disease. The State Department officials have reportedly called on foreign aid recipients to provide critical medical supplies and Trump has appealed to South Korean counterpart for supply of ventilators.
Previously rejecting Havana's offers to assist during national emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina that devastated the city of New Orleans in 2005, the Cuban officials told the Newsweek that yet "no official request for help has been received" from the US.
Foreign observers have called for the end of sanctions well as removal of all international trade barriers and restrictions against Cuba. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has appealed specifically for lifting sanctions against Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.
Majority of the above states have frail economic and health systems. Progress in upholding human rights is essential to improve the systems as obstacles to import vital medical supplies, including over-compliance with sanctions by banks to create long-lasting harm to vulnerable communities, Bachelet's added.
A factual account on how a small developing country of 11 million people is extending global humanitarian assistance to outside calls for some introspection. The Cuban endeavors are not recent but go back as far as the 1960s. How has it attained phenomenal progress in education, sports, bio-technology, health system despite debilitating sanctions and embargoes is a matter of introspection? At the same time, it has survived threats and assassinations by the US. No wonder, Fidel Castro is both admired and detested at the same time.
With a hard-hit economy due to loss of tourism, the mainstay of Cuban economy, the epidemic is going to be a hard challenge for Cuba. So far, it has faced few cases of epidemic and most of them are reportedly 'imported.' Yet it is going to close its borders to tourists for a month and carry out isolation measures in hotels and housing areas.
While Cuba is watching impending American elections, its economy has been hit hard; although Trump has offered aid to North Vietnam against the pandemic, Cuba is no candidate for such a likely aid- - given US-Cuban animosity. Many observers believe that for concerted global effort against the raging pandemic the US needs to relieve sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. The Trump administration, on the other hand, is believed to take a tough posture as its hopes are banking on sympathetic votes from the exiled Cuban community in Florida.
To be sure, the present anti-virus medicines are, at best palliatives, till an authentic cure is found. Also, Cuban medicine does not still match European or US standards. As for the vaccine, many countries like China, the US, Israel, Cuba and others are frantically working on it.
But Cubans, with their past record of 'international humanitarianism', are not bystanders like other nations during this scourge, but on frontline trying to mitigate the adverse effects of the global virus. Unlike the 1980s, the Russians are not of much help this time; however, Sino-Cuban co-operation in scientific research for a new drug is ongoing.
(The writer is former President, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, ex-Adviser, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad; former Head, Department of International Relations, National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad and until recently, Visiting Faculty, Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad)