In this interview with Chiamaka Okafor of PREMIUM TIMES and Kabir Yusuf, the Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria, Clara Pulido, talks about the bilateral relations between the two countries, learning points, points of exchange and mutual development.
Ms. Pulido also talks about Cuba’s globally respected health sector and its various creations, including three Vaccines against covid-19a diabetes medicine that prevents amputation and also a preventive product against malaria.
She concludes the interview by talking about how the US blockade affects Cuba and Cubans and calls on the United States to lift the blockade.
PT: We should start by asking you what you think about being Cuba’s ambassador to Nigeria.
Ms Pulido: The ties between Cuba and Nigeria are so important to Cuban history and culture. Most of us Cubans always repeat that it is not possible to write the history of Cuba without the enormous impact of people of African descent, especially people of what is today Nigeria – the impact they have had on Cuban history, culture and many other aspects.
Part of our roots are here in Africa, mainly in West Africa, in Nigeria, in the coastal areas. We also feel the impact in the resilience and resistance that have characterized the Cuban people for centuries and in the field of Cuban culture, music and dance and also the Afro-Cuban religion, of which you can find links with the Yoruba and Calabar. We could find ingredients for traditional Cuban cuisine in the local market here.
For any Cuban ambassador, it is truly a privilege to be here in Nigeria, one of the countries from which we have roots; and also because Nigeria is a big country, one of the most important in Africa.
PT: Tell us about the bilateral relationship with Nigeria in terms of education, health and others.
Ms Pulido: One of the main objectives of the embassy is to improve relations between our countries. At the political level, we have had very good relations for many years. It is normal for Cuba to support Nigerian candidates for the UN, just as we appreciate Nigeria’s support for Cuban candidates.
We are also grateful for Nigeria’s consistent vote in the UN General Assembly against the US blockade on Cuba – this is an important point and I must express our gratitude.
We have an important relationship in terms of education, over 100 Nigerians have traveled to Cuba in recent years. The figure will certainly be higher if figures from the past are added.
Most Nigerian students in Cuba are studying medicine, which is one of our well-known standards in the world.
We currently have an agreement with Kaduna State through a Cuban agency that helps foreign students study in Cuba. As part of this agreement, nine Nigerian students will travel to Cuba to study medicine.
There are also others that are self-sponsored. Our doors are open to continue working in this area and we look forward to continuing it.
In the field of health, in the past, few medical experts have worked in Nigeria. At present, we mainly have a business relationship with some private hospitals and clinics in Nigeria. Some Cuban biotech products are imported with NAFDAC authorization.
In the field of culture, we have had regular exchanges. It’s important and of course it’s one of the areas that leads the most between the two of us because of the huge impact that I mentioned earlier.
We have also had in the past and would like to continue to have relations in the field of sport. Some Cuban trainers have worked here in the past under intergovernmental agreements and sometimes Nigerian teams have traveled to Cuba to train.
We offer the areas in which we are strongest to our friends.
We must also express our gratitude to the Cuban Solidarity Movement in Nigeria, it is an important movement. In 2019, the sixth international conference of solidarity with Cuba in Africa was held in Nigeria – an intercontinental conference of solidarity with Cuba, people came from different places – it was organized by the Nigerian Labor Congress.
These are the main areas on which I think we can develop and, of course, I want to express our desire to continue to develop bilateral relations between Nigeria and Cuba.
PT: Staying on the health relationship; given the large health industry in Cuba, health tourism is probably a strange term for you. As an exchange or learning, what do you think Nigeria can take away from Cuba to help it better manage its health industry, since it is a major strength of Cuba?
Ms Pulido: In this regard, Cuba has experience in different areas. In the case of health tourism, we have our own experience based on our health system, an experience that we can share.
Nigerians who would like to go and train in Cuba but also because we know that Nigerians are fighting to strengthen the health sector here so that they can provide better health services. We can share our experience on better preparations.
The second point concerns the biotechnology field. As I said before, we have a solid experience in producing our own vaccines and medicines in Cuba and this experience has been offered to Nigeria. We know that Nigeria wants to develop its own vaccine production.
So, if the experience of Cuba can be used and we can work together in this area, we are here and it is very good for us. We are available for this.
The most relevant resource we have had in recent years has been the approval of three COVID-19 vaccines by the Cuban regulatory agency; these vaccines are 100% Cuban, we have two other candidate vaccines.
This result is based on the good development of Cuban biotechnology and the production of vaccines in particular. We are therefore in the best position to exchange our experience with Nigeria and learn together how we can develop further.
We have been in contact with many institutions in Nigeria in the past and present in order to exchange our experience and know-how in these fields. We hope this will help strengthen our bilateral relations as well as our health sectors.
Besides COVID-19, we have other health issues to tackle together. For example, we have a very good product for diabetes and we know that many Nigerians are affected by it. The product we have saves the leg and prevents amputation, which is one of the consequences of diabetes. Some hospitals in Abuja have imported and tried this drug.
PT: You mentioned that vaccine production is one of Cuba’s strengths, how do you see the new malaria vaccine?
Ms Pulido: In the case of malaria, a few years ago there were two pilot plans (bioproducts). These products were preventive rather than curative products. It kills mosquitoes and prevents their reproduction; when you reduce mosquitoes, you reduce possible cases of malaria. Taraba and Cross River States have used this product in the past, although in a pilot phase.
Cuban health philosophy considers that prevention is better than cure.
PT: The WHO has approved a vaccine against malaria. It seems that the preventive measures you mentioned were available before the new vaccines. Why isn’t it in the public space like the vaccine?
Ms Pulido: We have good relations with the WHO. They know about these and other Cuban medicines/health products.
I think a malaria vaccine is very important and a welcome development, but at the same time I insist that it is up to us to prevent. Both options should be made available to people who wish to either prevent or cure.
PT: Malaria is endemic in Nigeria with one of the highest mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Is there a high-level conversation between the two governments on how to move the use of these preventive measures beyond the pilot stage?
Ms Pulido: Yes of course. When we applied these two products, it was through conversations with the Nigerian government. The Nigerian government has the right to assess different possibilities and capabilities and decide which to apply.
We know how many people suffer from malaria; it’s the number one killer in Africa, not just in Nigeria, but Nigeria is contributing a lot. Our experience and capacity are available and have been offered.
PT: How have the US economic sanctions/blockade on Cuba affected your country over the years? How did Cuba manage to stay afloat?
Ms Pulido: The blockade has a huge effect on the Cuban people. The impact of the blockade is felt in all sectors of Cuba; every year it costs us billions of dollars because most of the time we have to go to markets far from Cuba to import.
We cannot buy directly from US companies; we are not allowed to transact in US dollars and as you know the US dollar is the global market currency and not being able to use it by itself is a huge problem.
If a Nigerian has a child studying in Cuba, you cannot send US dollars to his child in Cuba; they must use another currency. This is a real challenge that affects not only Cubans but also other nationals in Cuba.
It was also difficult for us to produce vaccines because we could not import from the United States, which has some of the largest pharmaceutical products and also the country geographically closest to Cuba. Once you cannot import from American pharmaceutical companies, it is very expensive to create these drugs in Cuba.
The blockade has in fact greatly affected Cuba, not only in the health sector but also in that of education. We are a small island country, we have to import a lot of things, the blockade makes it very difficult.
We demand that this blockade be lifted on Cubans people, just as most member states vote in the UN General Assembly whenever the blockade issue is put to a vote.
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