In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Chiamaka Okafor and Kabir Yusuf, 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 COVID-19 vaccines, a diabetes medication that prevents amputation and also a preventive product for malaria.
She closes the interview by talking about how U.S. blockade affects Cuba and Cubans and calls on the U.S. to lift the blockade.
PT: We should open by asking how you feel about being Cuba’s ambassador to Nigeria.
Ms Pulido: The ties between Cuba and Nigeria are so important for Cuban history and culture. Most of us Cubans always repeat that it is not possible to write the history of Cuba without the tremendous impact of people of African origin, particularly people of what is today’s Nigeria – the impact they have made in Cuban history, culture and many other aspects.
Part of our roots are here in Africa, mainly in West Africa, Nigeria, in the coastal areas. We also feel the impact in the resilience and resistance that have characterised the Cuban people for centuries now and in the area of culture, Cuban music and dance and also the Afro-Cuban religion, of which you can find connections with the Yoruba and Calabar. We could find ingredients for traditional Cuban food in the local market here.
For any Cuban ambassador, it is really 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 more about the bilateral relation with Nigeria in terms of education, health and others.
Ms Pulido: One of the main goals of the embassy is to improve the relationship between our countries. At the political level, we have had a very good relationship for many years now. It is normal that Cuba supports Nigerian candidates at the UN as well as we enjoy Nigeria’s support for Cuban candidates.
We are also grateful for Nigeria’s consistent vote at 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 relation in terms of education, more than 100 Nigerians have travelled to Cuba in recent years. The figure will definitely be higher if figures from the past are added.
Most of the Nigerian students in Cuba are studying medicine, which is one of our well known standards globally.
We currently have an agreement with Kaduna State through a Cuban agency that facilitates foreign students studying in Cuba. As part of this agreement, nine Nigerian students will be heading to Cuba to study medicine.
There are also others who are self-sponsored. Our doors are open to continue working in this area and we look forward to pursuing it.
In the area of health, in the past, few medical experts have worked in Nigeria. At this time, what we have is mainly a commercial relationship with some private hospitals and clinics in Nigeria. Some Cuban biotechnological products are imported with clearance from NAFDAC.
In the area of culture, we have had regular exchanges. This is important and of course this is one of the areas that lead most between the two of us because of the tremendous impact that I mentioned earlier.
We have had also in the past and will love to continue having relations in the area of sports. Some Cuban trainers have worked here in the past through inter-governmental agreements and sometimes Nigerian teams have gone to Cuba to get trained.
We offer those areas in which we are stronger to our friends.
We also have to express our appreciation to the Solidarity Movement with Cuba in Nigeria, it is an important movement. In the year 2019, the sixth international conference in solidarity with Cuba in Africa was held in Nigeria – an intercontinental conference in solidarity with Cuba, people came from different places- it was organised by the Nigerian Labour Congress.
These are the main areas I think that we can elaborate on, and of course, I want to express our desire to continue developing bilateral relations between Nigeria and Cuba.
PT: Staying on the health relation; given Cuba’s large health industry, health tourism is probably a strange phrase to you. By way of exchange or learning, what do you think Nigeria can take from Cuba to help it better manage its health industry, seeing that this is a major strength of Cuba?
Ms Pulido: In that 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.
Nigerian people who would like to go for training in Cuba but also because we know that Nigerians are fighting to strengthen the health sector here so as to be able to offer better health services. We can share our experience on better preparations.
The second point is regarding the biotechnological area. As I said before, we have a strong experience in producing our own vaccines and medicine in Cuba and that experience has been offered to Nigeria. We know that Nigeria wants to develop their own vaccine production.
So if the experience of Cuba can serve and we can work together in that area, we are here and it is fine for us. We are available for that.
The most relevant resource we have had in recent years was the approval of three COVID-19 vaccines by the Cuban regulatory agency; these vaccines are 100 per cent Cuba’s, we have two other vaccine candidates.
This result has a base in the good development of the Cuba biotechnology and vaccine production in particular. So we are in the best position to exchange our experience with Nigeria and to learn together how we can develop more.
We have been in contact with many institutions in Nigeria in the past and today in order to exchange our experience and our know-how in those areas. We hope these will help strengthen our bilateral relations and also our health sectors.
Aside from COVID-19, we have other health issues to tackle together. For instance, we have a very good product for diabetes and we know there are several Nigerians 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 medication.
PT: You have 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, some years ago, there were two pilot plans (bio-products). These products were preventive products rather than curative. It kills the mosquitoes and prevents their reproduction; when you reduce the mosquitoes, you reduce the possible cases of malaria. Taraba and Cross River States have used this product in the past, although in pilot phase.
The Cuban health philosophy believes that it is better to prevent than to cure.
PT: WHO has approved a malaria vaccine. It appears the preventive measures you talked about have been available before the new vaccines. Why is it not in public space like the vaccine?
Ms Pulido: We have a good relationship with WHO. They know about those products and other Cuban medication/health products.
I think that a vaccine against malaria is çvery important and a welcome development but at the same time, I do insist that the issue is for us to prevent. Both options should be made available to people who want 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 both governments on how to move the use of these preventive measures beyond 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 evaluate different possibilities and capacities and decide on what is right to apply.
We know how many people suffer from Malaria; it is the first killer in Africa, not only in Nigeria, but Nigeria is contributing in high numbers. Our experience and capacity are available and have been offered.
PT: How has the U.S. economic sanctions/blockade on Cuba affected your country over the years? How has Cuba managed to stay afloat?
Ms Pulido: The blockade has a tremendous effect on Cuban people. The impact of the blockade is felt in every sector of Cuba; yearly it costs us billions of dollars because most of the time we have to go to markets far from Cuba to make imports.
We cannot buy directly from US companies; we are not allowed to do transactions in U.S. dollars and as you know, the U.S. dollar is the global market currency and to not be able to use that in itself is a huge problem.
If a Nigerian has a child studying in Cuba, you cannot send U.S. dollars to their child in Cuba; they have to use another currency. It 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 U.S. which has some of the biggest pharmaceuticals and also the closest country to Cuba geographically. Once you cannot import from the U.S. pharmaceutical companies, it costs a lot to create those drugs within Cuba.
The blockade has indeed affected Cuba greatly not just in the health sector but also in education. We are a small island country, we need to import a lot of things, the blockade makes it really hard.
We are asking that this blockade be lifted off the Cuban people, just like most member states vote at the UN General Assembly whenever the issue of the blockade is put to vote.
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