TOPICS > Health

In Cuba, Biotech Eyed for Potential Economic Boost

December 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez, who is reporting for the NewsHour's Global Health Unit in Cuba, speaks with Jeffrey Brown about the country's changing economy, its booming medical research industry and health care system. Suarez returns to Havana for the first time since the Cold War to see how it has changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now to a rare look inside Cuba.

Ray Suarez is there for us reporting on a number of issues and changes taking place on the island nation. I talked to him earlier today for a preview of what he’s seen so far.

Ray, I know one of the things you’re reporting on is the state of the economy and recent reform moves by the government.Tell us what you’re seeing.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, some people have called it an adjustment, rather than wholesale reform.

The Communist Party is going to still have a very strong place in the Cuban economy, so they’re looking at creating more space for private enterprise, deregulating some jobs, so that people, entrepreneurial people, can take them on as self-employment, rather than working directly for the government.

More than 100 jobs will be open now to private business, and really just in time, because more openness in the private sector is a place where the Cuban economy hopes to soak up half-a-million government employees that are due to be laid off over the next year.There will be a period of adjustment.They will get some continued support from the government.And then there will come a point where they are on their own.

And the expectation, the hope here is that those people will move into the private sector because there will be more room for self-employment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one area of growth there is in high-tech, specifically biotech.I gather you visited a big biotech complex recently.Tell us what is going on.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the level of education for technical and scientific fields, very high, so Cuba had, you might say, a surplus for a developing country of really superbly educated researchers, technicians, scientists.

And they channeled them into biotech, genetic engineering, searching for ways to synthesize new drugs, create new compounds, create new molecules.And it’s remarkable, really, to see the advances that Cuba has made in this area.

It’s already the third largest contributor to the national bottom line just behind nickel production and tourism.You know, necessity being the mother of invention, and a lot of drugs being hard to get here in Cuba because of the economic blockade by the United States, they really try to provide for themselves, try to provide the kind of drugs and treatment that it was very expensive for them to buy on the world market, and impossible for them to buy from the United States.

And they have already achieved hundreds of international patents.They have developed over 1,000 different compounds that they have got in various stages of testing.And, interestingly, 45 substances have even been granted U.S. patents, but because of the lack of economic relations between the United States and Cuba, those products cannot be made in the United States, can’t be licensed for production in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, Ray, I know you were in Cuba long ago. We all have this picture of the 1950s car and that isolated time capsule look. How does it feel today?

RAY SUAREZ: In many ways, the same, but there are also a lot of differences.

When I was here 23 years ago, the Soviet Union was still in existence.Moscow was still providing heavy subsidies to the Cuban economy.Those are all gone.So, a lot of the work that was under way for historic preservation, a lot of the work that was under way to restore buildings in Old Havana had stopped during what became called — what was called the special period.

It was a time when there was severe economic distress here, and a lot of those kinds of projects stopped right in their tracks.But, at the same time, because of the restoration of contacts between Cuban-Americans and their relatives here on the island, money and goods much more easily flows here.

So, you will see people wearing name-brand clothing in a way that you didn’t see during the 1980s, when it was hard to get those kind of things here.So, you will see Nike, and Sean John, and Lees and Levi’s and various popular Western name brands.

A lot of that clothing enters this country in suitcases that come from Miami.So, the Cuban youth actually want that stuff.They have wanted it for a long time.And now, because of the recent opening, it’s a little easier to get.

In some ways, Havana is still that stereotypical place of 1950s cars, big cigars, and potent drinks.But it’s a much more complicated and I think much more interesting story in a lot of ways.

And we will be telling it later this month on the NewsHour.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ray, we will look for that and your reporting on the health care system as well.Take care.

RAY SUAREZ: Take it easy, Jeff.Good to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ray’s stories will air later this month, but you can look for his blogs from Cuba online now.