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1 August 1999

US "Discreetly" Eases Cuba Embargo:

US Licenses Cuban Vaccine

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a spokesperson for the US Treasury Department confirmed on July 23 that the department has given the SmithKline Beecham pharmaceutical company a license to enter a joint venture with Cuba's Carlos Finlay Institute to market a vaccine against meningitis B. SmithKline will be allowed to market the drug in the US if the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves it; the British firm will initially pay Finlay with food and medicine but will make cash royalty payments if it begins selling the vaccine.

Many doctors consider the vaccine, which the Havana-based Finlay Institute developed in 1985, the most advanced vaccine against meningitis B. Cuba inoculated 100,000 children with it in 1987, and the Pan American Health Organization reported that it was 83% effective. Cuba has since sold millions of doses of the vaccine to Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. A 37-year old trade embargo against Cuba has prevented production in the US, which produces no vaccine against the disease. The FDA's Dr. Carl Frasch estimates that 1,000-2,000 cases could be prevented in the US each year if the vaccine was properly developed and marketed. [Wall Street Journal 7/23/99; Miami Herald 7/24/99, some from Bloomberg News; El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 7/24/99 from AFP]

US "Discreetly" Eases Cuba Embargo

"Officially, the tone is that of the Cold War," but Cuba and the US have "made small and discreet steps recently tending to increase contacts between the two countries," according to the French news service Agence France Presse. [ENH 7/24/99 from AFP]

On July 8 the US company Western Union began providing cash transfer services in 31 agencies of the Cuban currency exchange corporation CIMEX S.A. Under new rules that took effect in July, US residents can now send up to $300 every three months to relatives in Cuba. The US Treasury Department gave Western Union a license to operate in Cuba to handle the cash transfers; the company will charge $29 for each transfer of $200-300. [El Diario-La Prensa 7/13/99 from EFE]

On July 15 US Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue concluded a three-day visit to Cuba, during which he met with National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, religious leaders, charitable organizations and a group of dissidents. He also had a six-hour dinner with Cuban president Fidel Castro Ruz, and left the country praising Castro as "a man of great energy." [ED-LP 7/16/99 from AFP; Financial Times (UK) 7/19/99]

On July 20 officials of US agricultural organizations held a reception in Washington for Maria de la Luz B'Hamel, the Cuban Foreign Trade Ministry's director of trade policy with North America, and Igor Montero Brito, vice president of ALIMPORT, the government-run company in charge of importing agricultural products to Cuba. The reception was held in a lounge in the US Senate; the room was obtained with the help of Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who did not attend the event. This is apparently the first time that Cuban officials have ever been received in the US Senate. [ED-LP 7/21/99 from EFE; ENH 7/22/99; ENH 7/24/99 from AFP] Meanwhile, Republican senators from farm states -- Richard Lugar (IN), Chuck Hagel (NE), John Ashcroft (MT) -- are pushing legislation that would ease restrictions on the sale of US agricultural products to a number of countries, including Cuba. [ENH 7/3/99]

On July 23 the US-based organization Human Rights Watch published a 263-page report describing the trade embargo as a "sledgehammer approach" that has helped Castro justify repressive policies in Cuba. The embargo "has made enemies of all Washington's potential allies, dividing those nations that ought to act in concert." [FT 7/23/99]

Apparently bucking the trend, the administration of US president Bill Clinton is moving to apply the so-called Helms-Burton Act -- a 1996 law that attempts to extend the US embargo to other countries -- to a Spanish firm that runs 12 hotels in Cuba, as well as one in Miami. On July 3 the government informed Grupo Sol Melia that one of its hotels in eastern Holguin province might be built on land seized from US citizens in 1961. Under Helms-Burton, the US could punish the Spanish company by barring its officials from traveling to the US. The move is likely to set off new tensions with European countries, which strongly oppose the Helms-Burton measures. [MH 7/3/99]

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