Cuba’s effort to promote its expertise in biotechnology is also expanding, and it is evident that the government is intent on commercializing its potential in the area of scientific and technical services and technologically intensive products.
Havana boasts that its scientific programs began shortly after the literacy campaign of the early 1960s, and a representative states that, by July 1, 1965, there was an emerging link between research, product development, and medical services.
Cubans insist that their biotech industry was developed independently of Soviet assistance.
One manager links the emergence and development of Cuba’s biotech industry to the country’s inability to keep up with the electronic revolution. According to him, even though scientists at the University of Havana developed a computer in 1970, the computing industry was not thought to make use of Cuba’s strengths — its natural and human resources.
The 1980s saw a focus on the development of biotechnology which had been around for some time and was able to make use of a wide spectrum of Cuban assets.
If this information is accurate, it is possible that joint partnerships could have been developed at that time that would have made success more probable for the industry than at present.
As a consequence of the sector’s isolation from the capitalist community over a period of thirty years, many now question the quality and efficacy of Cuba’s products, particularly pharmaceuticals. According to a Cuban biotech manager I interviewed in 1997:
Foreign experts criticize what they mistakenly believe is the rapid commercialization of these products before they are widely tested.
Cuban researchers, however, argue that they are quite aware of this criticism and are, therefore, particularly careful to make sure that all aspects of production meet the highest international standards.
Moreover, they note that /Cuba’s experts were trained in European countries such as Finland, not in the USSR.
Habaneros, particularly, are quite proud of this sector of the economy which Cuba developed almost independently of the Soviet Union.
Much of the biotech activity is located in the area of Havana known as Cubanacan, an area reminescent of the Silicon Valley in California. However, instead of computer enclaves, this neighborhood reflects an abundance of research institutions and healthcare facilities.
Havana’s Center for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (CIGB) was created in 1983 and is reputed to be one of the largest research laboratories in the world. It provides clinical support for “a variety of Cuban medical, agricultural, biotechnological and veterinary products for domestic consumption and export.”
Successes include the manufacture of a drug to counter artheriosclerosis made from sugar cane, exploration of the various uses of ozone treatment, and the manufacture of biomaterial from seaweed.
All in all, by 1997, CIGB had developed 15 new substances and 43 types of enzymes. In 1997, it exported more than 20 products.
Another research institute, the National Center of Scientific Investigations, manufactures a variety of medical goods.
The pharmaceutical field is also strong, producing some medicines that are unique in the world.
Of the 1,085 medicines that circulate widely in Cuba, the country can manufacture 757. Unique manufactures include Melagenina, the only formula effective against the treatment of vitaglio, and PPG, an effective anti cholesterol drug.
Many countries are particularly interested in Cuba’s “computer-based medical equipment such as the SUMA (Ultra-Micro-analytic System), a highly efficient ‘viral detection kit’ which is regarded as extremely reliable for detecting AIDS as well as twelve other diseases and is the first of its kind amenable to relatively inexpensive, mass production and viable use in the developing world.
In sum, Cuban products (including pharmaceuticals) are registered in thirty countries and have been marketed in thirty-four, and the country’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries exported more than $100 million in 1994.
Major vaccines marketed by Cuba include the anti meningococcus vaccine and the anti hepatitus B vaccine.
Regardless of its strengths, however, the biotech secotor faces multiple challenges as it attempts to compete with some of the world’s largest multinational corporations.
Nevertheless, in early 1991, Cuba negotiated a $350 million debt with Mexico based on a package of trade and joint venture investment.
Among other products, the island is to produce advanced medical equipment and vaccines for export to Mexico with an agreed upon formula for dividing a share of the profits to apply toward the outstanding debt.
Also, Columbia will export coal, electric cables, and machinery to Cuba in exchange for biotechnology products.
In addition to Mexico and Columbia, purchasers of medical products include Brazil (which has purchased over $50 million worth of Cuban vaccines), Ecuador, Uruguay, Spain, and China.
Also, in 1992, Tehran agreed to purchase Cuban pharmaceuticals in exchange for Iranian petroleum and industrial products.
Working in close association with the plethora of biotech facilities are highly sophisticated medical centers which provide services for both nationals and foreigners. In fact, ‘health tourism’ is increasingly promoted with facilities located in close proximity to the research institutions.
Playa Municipality today holds a good share of these newer facilities: the Center for Medical Surgery, the Institute of Tropical Medicine, and the Iberoamerican Center for Regeneration. In Miramar, a prestigious private clinic was converted into a hospital for foreigners: Cira Garcia. South of Miramar, in La Lisa, the orthopedic hospital Frank Pais was built. It attracts thousands of Latin Americans annually who receive care gratis even though it serves mainly Cubans. In Boyeros, the National Psychiatric Hospital and the rehabilitation hospital Julio Diaz were converted into general hospitals.
According to a noted Cuban economist
By the end of 1994, the Cuban government had successfully marketed its advanced medical services via the imaginative system of “health tourism” for income totaling over $21 milllion, servicing over 8,000 patients from over 90 countries.