Iván Barreto Lopez from the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples and Marianniz Díaz Hernández from the Centre for Molecular Immunology in Havana spoke to students and staff at the University of Sydney on August 7.
Lopez and Hernandez have been speaking at meetings across Australia for a month. Both are members of the Cuban Young Communist League (UJC) which has more than 600,000 members.
The forum was organised by the Red Ant Collective in collaboration with several university clubs.
Nick Dobrijevich introduced Hernández, saying she had received the 2021 Annual Award from the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the 2022 Annual Health Award for Technological Research for her work on the Soberana Plus vaccine.
“Because of the 60-year blockade, we don’t have enough money to buy international vaccines so we make our own,” Hernández said. “The blockade means we can’t buy anything from the United States or anything that has 10% of anything within it, from the US.
She said BioCubaFarma, a network of 34 Cuban biotech companies, employs 20,000 people and supplies 996 products including medicines, diagnostic tests, medical equipment, dental products, and raw materials for medical care.
“We produced three anti-COVID-19 vaccines, starting in March 2020, and by July 9, 2021, we had produced Abdala for adults, and in August 2021, Soberena 02 and Soberena Plus vaccines.” Abdala references Cuban revolutionary hero José Martí’s first play.
“We produced the vaccines really fast because all the biotech companies, health care system, national regulation authorities and relevant departments in universities worked together.”
Hernández said Cuba has one of highest proportion of its population vaccinated in the world: 10 million people have had the vaccine and 8 million have had the booster.
“Soberena had 92% efficacy and helped get our cases to a very low rate, even compared to Europe. We were the first country to vaccinate children over 2 years old.
“We sent the vaccines around the world, and doctors to countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Italy.”
Barreto Lopez said young people were “critical” to the country’s pandemic response. “As Cuba has free, universal health care, we were helping those in isolation, providing food and medicine, working within the biotech companies and transporting those who had disease [to hospitals].
He said while biotech companies around the world create a client base, it is “totally different” in Cuba. The biotech sector receives some economic benefit from sending its products around the world, but that “helps us sustain our universal health system”.
“For every Cuban medicine is totally free, or less than 50 cents for any drugs, very minimal in cost.” Cuba also sent the vaccines gratis to Syria, Mexico and Venezuela for free and made the technology free for some countries.
US blockade impacts everyone
Barreto Lopez said every single Cuban, and every generation, has experienced the negative effects of the US blockade.
“Since 1992, resolutions against the blockade have been presented in the United Nations and almost the entire world — 189 countries — have voted with Cuba.
“Israel is the only nation to support the US. Even the US representative abstained one year but, after [Donald] Trump was elected, they voted against.” He said under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil abstained in 2021 and 2022. Ukraine abstained in both years, despite Cuba helping Ukraine after the Chernobyl disaster.
“Cuba has very limited economic life: third countries can’t trade normally. No bank in Australia can send money to us because they are related to US banks.
“We are on the list of terrorist countries. We have long lines to get food and fuel. [We have] blackouts of electrical power more than 4–6 hours long. All this is designed to make people tired and motivate people to overthrow the government. We’ve had shortages of food, oil and raw materials. Every single generation has suffered from the US sanctions.”
The blockade prevents Cuba from receiving oxygen and syringe donations to help with COVID-19. Yet Cuba still sent medical brigades to help Nigeria, as well as Italy and Spain.
Cuba also still sends international literacy programs across the world: the program for Aboriginal communities is “Yes We Can” and in New Zealand, it is “Green Light”.
Cuba didn’t have an anti-vaccine movement, Barreto Lopez said, even though it was not made mandatory. He said that even though the block of left-wing governments — the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) — had become weaker during the Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro years, the left is on the rise again.
“We have more cohesion in Latin America. CELAC developed a very strong nuclear disarmament position. But we need to rebuild relations as a block.”
He said there are “new opportunities for collaboration” against US hegemony with the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Asked about young people’s attitudes to Cuban socialism, Barreto Lopez said there are some who look for alternatives, influenced by the “anti-Cuban, US-based former Cuba mafia” and the West’s corporate media promotion of capitalism.
He said “a core of young people” still support the revolution and are active in “resisting imperialism and back the global socialist movement”.
Cuba had learned from mistakes in relation to the LGBTIQ community, women and the rights of the Black Cubans. Some of the discrimination is more related to “culture” rather than it being “institutional”. This, he said, is connected to Cuba being colonised by the transphobic, homophobic, masochistic Spanish for centuries.
Change an ongoing struggle
“This cultural, educational change is an ongoing struggle,” Barreto Lopez said. Cuba was still ahead of the World Health Organisation, which only removed homosexuality from its International Classification of Diseases list in 1990.
“In the 1980s, Cuba had offices for LGBTIQ rights and, last year, we approved the Family Code. It contains women’s rights, children rights, elderly people’s rights and promotes inclusivity.
“We are working hard to make people happy and determine everyone’s rights, despite the economic blockade.”