Archive for June 17th, 2013

What Will It Take to Normalize Relations between the United States and Cuba ?

June 17, 2013

cuba-florida

Recently, Elaine Scheye, CEO of The Scheye Group, Ltd., organized and participated in a panel discussion at LASA 2013. The topic was, “What Will It Take to Normalize Relations between the United States and Cuba.” Among the other panelists were His Excellency, Ambassador José Cabañas, Wayne Smith and Carlos Alzugaray.

Below is a summary of Ms. Scheye’s remarks in which she suggests scientific exchanges between American and Cuban physicians and scientists is a valuable step toward achieving normalization of relations.

In the early 80’s, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and the organization that has become the CIGB enjoyed cordial relations. Cubans and Americans were working closely on several projects jointly particularly on Interferon. Rather than this becoming a model for future cooperation, the embargo (bloqueo) was strengthened through enactment into law of the Helms-Burton Act. This has severely restricted American companies’ ability to freely trade with Cuba due to the Act’s extraterritorial reach.

Foreign companies, after being acquired by American, have opted to avoid dealing with Cuba rather than face severe economic sanctions that can include prison sentences. Transactions are further complicated by onerous end-use reporting requirements of the Commerce Department.

In a world where almost all transactions have a global component, the refusal of many companies to sell medicines, health care devices and diagnostic equipment/supplies essentially bars Cuba from obtaining these crucial items in a cost effective manner despite the world’s leading health care producer being only 90 miles away.

These sanctions are fraught with tragic consequences. Certain diagnostic tests are solely produced in the United States. The inability to acquire medical products impacts the lives of innocent Cubans.

Examples include heart valves, advanced pediatric surgical anesthesia,equipment for diagnosing and treating cancers of the retina and a device to help prevent organ rejection in transplants are just a few examples.

Over and above individual tragedies, these sanctions have reduced Cuba’s ability to diagnose and effectively treat many cases and inhibits Cuba’s ability to generate accurate and useful morbidity/mortality data for use in its public health programs.

Adding insult to injury, obstacles are put in the way of scientific exchanges. This is a loss for both Cubans and Americans. Cuban physicians and scientists working on cures for cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases, are often either denied visas outright or only receive them too late to attend meetings. At the same time, the rest of the world benefits from their knowledge and insights at international conferences.

This not only harms Cuba, it also denies American audiences the benefit of their knowledge. An unnoticed but important consideration is denying entry to these respected and renowned individuals, many of whom have won international awards, harms the image of the United States as a center of open scientific inquiry.

It should not be forgotten that American physicians and scientists are also impacted by these restrictive policies. For instance, American scientists are prohibited from co-authorship with Cubans considered members of “excluded class” (members of the Council of State and the Asamblea are two examples).

To even attend conferences in Cuba, Americans must qualify under a General License. This license will only be granted by the American government for conferences organized by an established international organization. If such an organization has merely endorsed the conference, an Americans must apply for a Specific License which is decided on a case-by-case basis.

American policies are inconsistent. Ironically, this inconsistency allows rays of light and creates hope for a more open future. One very successful scientific exchange program is at Harvard University with the Instituto Pedro Kouri (IPK) which specializes in infectious diseases.

Further, Cuba holds approximately 95 patents in biotechnology alone with the U. S. Patent Office. This is a result of President Kennedy’s 1962 exemption for intellectual property.Nevertheless, Cuba is the only country in the world that must first apply to OFAC approval prior to applying for FDA approval to begin clinical trials.

This process adds several million dollars of cost to an already expensive process, hurts American patients and those from other countries who come to the United States seeking life-extending/life-saving treatment, who in each case, could be benefiting from Cuban scientific and medical advances.

Other rays of light exist as well. Pedro Valdes, a physician and scientist who is Co-Director of CNEURO in Cuba, has become the first Cuban citizen elected to the Executive Council of the Minneapolis-based, Organization For Human Brain Mapping. What makes this all the more significant is the Organization’s role in helping to implement the several hundred million dollar brain mapping project initiated by President Obama. Finally, the Cuban developed drug,

Nimotuzumab, used for treating inoperable potine gliomas is the first drug of Cuban origin since the beginning of the embargo to be tested in clinical trials at major American medical centers.

For normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States to occur, the discussion needs to move from partisan politics. Scientific diplomacy must become an integral part of American foreign policy. Scientific exchanges should be utilized as a conduit for broader diplomatic discussions.

However, other diplomatic and political issues should not override the scientific, medical, moral and ethical implications of inhibiting and, indeed, nearly destroying Cuban-American cooperation on the scientific and medical fronts.


%d bloggers like this: