Cuba could be the first Latin American country to produce a vaccine against Covid-19. Both Sovereign 02 and Abdala are in the last clinical phase, which should be completed in the coming weeks. Once approved by the national drug agency, the vaccination campaign would begin on the island, and later the vaccines would be exported to Latin America and the Caribbean. If everything goes as planned, the vaccine would give respite to a political regime whose legitimacy is at stake in the face of the end of Castroism, the increase in Covid-19 cases and the deep economic crisis that has afflicted the island since the beginning of the pandemic.
Like most of its neighbors, Cuba is a country of contrasts. A first contradiction is the discrepancy between a constant economic precariousness and the internationalization of medical and health services. Long lines to buy food and other basic products are reminiscent of the Special Period in Time of Peace that Fidel Castro once proclaimed and which, with the exception of the golden age of the strategic alliance with Venezuela (2003-2013), is not yet over.
In Cuba, high levels of underdevelopment coexist with a high level pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry and the only Latin American School of Medicine on the continent. Cuba spent 12% of its GDP on public health in 2018, a percentage similar to that of Germany, Canada or France, but its per capita income does not exceed US$ 8,800 per year and is more than five times lower than in these three countries.
The island experiences the pandemic as both a misfortune and an opportunity. On the one hand, the absence of tourists and the country’s paralysis have sunk its economy, which fell by 11% in 2020 and caused a serious supply crisis. But, on the other hand, it offered the possibility of developing a national vaccine whose export would ensure an income not disdainful.
If the island were able to produce and export its vaccine to the rest of Latin America, which has the largest proportionate number of Covid-19 deaths in the world, it would improve its battered economy and the image of a regime that lives at its lowest point. of your story. It would also increase its international prestige and profile in South-South cooperation, in which Cuba has always played a prominent role.
THE VACCINE WILL DECIDE THE FUTURE OF THE ISLAND
In this sense, the vaccine will decide the economic, political and social future of the island. It’s a risky bet. For promoting its own vaccine — there are currently five in the final phase — and for having a “high level of development” (the fourth best in the region) according to the 2020 Human Development Index, Cuba has resigned from being part of the international Covax initiative supported by the UN and WHO to distribute vaccines to developing countries.
Nor did he buy any vaccine from abroad as other Latin American countries did. Miguel Díaz-Canel’s government maintains its promise to vaccinate during the summer of 2021 up to 70% of Cubans with Sovereign 02 and/or Abdala, a nasal spray that would be the first against Covid-19 to be approved in the world. Once national needs are covered, the goal would be to manufacture 100 million doses in national laboratories such as BioCubaFarma. The ideological allies of Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela have already confirmed that they will buy the vaccine, as have Jamaica and Suriname.
Compared to its neighbors, Cuba stands out above all for universal public services worthy of the name, despite the constant and long deterioration of services since the end of subsidies from the Soviet Union. This marks an important difference with its ally Venezuela, which continues to supply the island with oil at subsidized prices in exchange for Cuban doctors and advisers who actively supported the Bolivarian Revolution, whose resounding failure is also the co-responsibility of Cuba, which tried to export part of its model for the neighboring country.
The big difference between Cuba and Venezuela is the state, protective in the first case and fragile or dysfunctional in the second. Despite the economic consequences of the US embargo that the island has suffered since the 1960s, Cuba has been able to build universal public services and social benefits, including the booklet that continues to supply some products, despite having long since stopped covering the basic food basket. .
The protective state also functioned during the pandemic. In 2020, Cuba only registered 12,225 cases of Covid-19 and 146 deaths, the lowest level of contagion and mortality on the continent. However, as in China or other countries with authoritarian governments, these results have been achieved at the expense of many restrictions on freedom. Those infected were forced to enter public facilities under unknown conditions and all Cubans suffered a harsh confinement that isolated Cuba from the world for nearly eight months.
In this way, they saved lives, but at the expense of freedom, something much more complicated to impose in a democracy. When Cuba finally opened its domestic and international flights in November 2020, the contagion soared, because at first travelers were not asked for a negative PCR test.
In the midst of the pandemic’s height, the government decided, on January 1, 2021, to end the duality between the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) and the Cuban peso and to put into practice the long-announced monetary reform, finally managed by the post- Castroism, the duo between President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Prime Minister Manuel Marrero.
The regime would benefit from the vaccine because discontent grows on the island due to a difficult, if not impossible, economic situation and new repressive measures, including —and this is new— the world of culture, which has always had a greater margin of freedom than the than other sectors.
Vaccines and medical internationalism have been closely linked to the Revolution and its social vocation. From a historical point of view, it is also a tribute to Che Guevara, who was a doctor by profession. For political leadership, researching, curing and eradicating tropical diseases or diseases of unknown origin such as vitiligo has been an important source of legitimacy, prestige and currency. Since the victory against the Batista dictatorship, converting the island into a country of high human development, with universal and quality public services, has been part of the Castro brothers’ agenda of sui generis Socialism.
Since the 1960s, Cuba has sent doctors to all regions of the world, particularly Africa and Latin America. But the presence of Cuban doctors at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy or other European countries demonstrated their international vocation —sometimes forced by the regime and sometimes voluntary— and the quality of their health professionals.
Producing and exporting a Cuban vaccine against Covid-19 would have advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it would give relief to the battered Cuban economy. But it would also prolong an agonizing process of change and the life of a regime that maintains a model of coexistence that has been exhausted for some time and no longer corresponds to the reality of an island that has adapted to capitalism without enjoying democratic rights.
* Translation from Spanish by Maria Isabel Santos Lima