Reporter’s Notebook: Getting Reacquainted with Havana

BY Ray Suarez  December 3, 2010 at 2:00 PM EST

Havana street, Andy SquiresStreets of Havana. (Photo by Andy Squires).

All the stereotypes are still in place: Cubans love cigars, rum, music, and baseball.

1950s Chevys, Buicks, Plymouths, and 1970s Ladas and Zils from the Soviet Union still drive on the streets of Havana.

So an American tourist who figures out how to get around the restrictions and come here looking for that Cuba will find it. Today, more than 50 years after the Revolution, and about 20 years since the Soviet Union went to pieces, Cuba is a lot more complicated, and far more interesting, than the stereotypes would indicate.

The country has embraced tourism after a lengthy resistance and Cuba has created a health system that routinely achieves strong results– there is also talk of economic change on the horizon.

The Newshour’s Global Health Unit is in Havana this week to take a firsthand look at the health system, the country’s growing biotechnology industry and new policy moves by the government.

Talking to Cubans here, they routinely ask, “is this your first visit?” When I tell them it’s not my first time, and quickly add that the last time I was here the Soviet Union was still around (and still paying big subsidies to the Cuban treasury), several people have given the same reply: “It’s not the same country.”

The buildings look the same; many are in need of paint and plaster or a good scrubbing down. The streets of the capital, Havana, are strikingly dim at night, as electricity is expensive. There’s an easy-going vibe on these streets, as music and people pour out from the doors of clubs and restaurants, and clusters of teens line up for hot dogs and sweet, tiny cups of Cuban coffee.

Political scientist Rafael Hernandez, who edits and publishes the journal ‘Temas’, or themes, calls this a critical time in Cuba’s history. The government of Raul Castro is signaling approaching changes in the system.

I asked Hernandez if the younger brother of revolutionary leader and longtime commander-in-chief Fidel Castro is ready to really make fundamental changes in the daily lives of Cubans. He calls the changes that are coming “adjustments” rather than wholesale changes. At the end of the transition, Hernandez says, Cuba will still be a socialist country. But the state sector may be much smaller, and power and decision-making far more decentralized.

I point out that change of that kind has long been promised, but the economy has only been able to move from roughly nine out of ten Cubans working for the government in 1981 to about eight out of ten in 2006. The Castro government has recently announced plans for half a million government layoffs in the coming months, hoping that the workers shed by the government will be absorbed by a growing private sector.

Among the growing industries in Cuba are biotechnology and medical research. The country has become one of the world leaders in these fields.

Our NewsHour team headed to the outskirts of Havana to a large biotech center that headquarters the country’s fast-growing medical research industry. It got its start in the 1980s, when a visiting American scientist delivered a paper on interferons, proteins produced by the human body to fight off threats. Cubans took the findings and ran with them, first producing interferons in bulk from human blood, and then synthesizing them from cultures. That work became the genesis of the island’s integrated biotech industry, which combines research, testing, and manufacture to create new medicines faster and cheaper than in Europe and the United States.

Our host, Dr. Manuel Raices, spoke passionately of the work his scientists are doing at the center. He called the continuing U.S. embargo the “catalyst” of the Cuban industry, as it forced the country to fall back on its own intellectual resources to fight its medical problems.

The Cuban biotech industry has submitted more than a thousand patent applications and been awarded more than a hundred international patents, including 45 in the United States. Raices said his country’s social, rather than market-based, medical research delivers medicines designed to fight diseases in the developing world cheaply, and still makes a profit that is put back into research and development in Cuba. Cuban genetic scientists have partners in countries like Spain and Brazil working on new medicines and producing them in bulk overseas for easier shipping to markets an ocean away.

Raices says Cuba has a good record within the international regulatory world, with his country’s bio-engineered medicines winning recognitions for their safety and efficacy.

It is a remarkable thing to see a country so poor achieving so much in a field that is very much a rich country’s game.

Over the next week, I’ll be sharing more thoughts on Cuba’s national health care system, its slow march to reform, and the possibility of further opening to the United States.