Cuba could be the first country in Latin America to produce a vaccine against Covid-19. Sovereign 02 and Abdala are both in the last clinical phase, which is expected to 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 all goes as planned, the vaccine would give a 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 hit the island since start of the pandemic.
Like most of its neighbors, Cuba is a country of contrasts. A first contradiction is the gap between constant economic insecurity and the internationalization of medical and health services. The long queues to buy food and other basic items are reminiscent of the special peacetime period that Fidel Castro once proclaimed and which, with the exception of the golden age of the alliance strategic plan with Venezuela (2003-2013), is not yet complete. .
In Cuba, high levels of underdevelopment coexist with a high-level pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry and the only Latin American medical school 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 over five times lower than that of these three countries. .
The island is seeing the pandemic as both a misfortune and an opportunity. On the one hand, the absence of tourists and the paralysis of the country sank 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 a non-disdainful income.
If the island were able to produce and export its vaccine to the rest of Latin America, which has the highest number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world, it would improve its battered economy and the image of the island. ‘a regime that lives at the bottom. point of your story. It would also increase its international prestige and profile in South-South cooperation, in which Cuba has always played a leading 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 is a risky bet. For promoting its own vaccine – there are currently five in the final stages – and for having a “high level of development” (the fourth best in the region) according to the Human Development Index 2020, Cuba has resigned. of his membership in Covax. international initiative supported by the UN and WHO to distribute vaccines to developing countries.
It also did not buy a vaccine from abroad like other Latin American countries did. Miguel Díaz-Canel’s government keeps its promise to vaccinate up to 70% of Cubans during the summer of 2021 with Sovereign 02 and / or Abdala, a nasal spray that would be the first against Covid-19 to be approved worldwide . Once national needs are met, the goal would be to manufacture 100 million doses in national laboratories like 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 its 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 return for Cuban doctors and advisers who actively supported the Bolivarian revolution, whose resounding failure is also the joint responsibility of Cuba, which tried to export part of its model to 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 American embargo that the island has undergone since the 1960s, Cuba has been able to build universal public services and social benefits, including the passbook which continues to provide certain products, although it has long since ceased to exist. cover the basic food basket. . .
The protective state also worked during the pandemic. In 2020, Cuba recorded only 12,225 cases of Covid-19 and 146 deaths, the lowest level of contagion and death on the continent. However, as in China or other countries with authoritarian governments, these results have come at the expense of many restrictions on freedom. Those infected were forced into public facilities under unknown conditions and all Cubans endured severe lockdown 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 enforce in a democracy. When Cuba finally opened its domestic and international flights in November 2020, the contagion skyrocketed because initially travelers were not asked to take a negative PCR test.
At the height of the pandemic, 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 much-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 as discontent grows on the island over a difficult, if not impossible, economic situation and new crackdowns, including – and this is new – the world of culture, which has always had a greater margin of freedom. than other sectors.
Vaccines and medical internationalism were 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 leaders, the research, cure and eradication of tropical diseases or of unknown origin such as vitiligo have been an important source of legitimacy, prestige and value. Since the victory against the dictatorship of Batista, making the island a country of strong human development, with universal and quality public services, has been part of the agenda of the Castro brothers of sui generis socialism.
Since the 1960s, Cuba has sent doctors to all parts of the world, especially Africa and Latin America. But the presence of Cuban doctors at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in Italy or in 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 relieve the battered Cuban economy. But it would also prolong a process of agonizing change and the life of a regime which maintains a model of coexistence which has been exhausted for some time and no longer corresponds to the reality of an island which has adapted to capitalism without enjoying democratic rights. .
* Translation from Spanish by Maria Isabel Santos Lima