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(Tribune News Service) — The Cuban government rejected a U.S. donation of 1 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine because the offer came too late and had too many requirements attached, the island’s foreign minister said in a gathering with accredited diplomats in Havana.

Bruno Rodriguez said the U.S. State Department reached out to the Cuban embassy in Washington last Friday to make the offer he referred to as “last minute” and “opportunistic.” The minister made the exchange public during an unusual meeting in which he complained about alleged U.S. plans to destabilize the communist government and the lack of humanitarian assistance during the pandemic.

“They are offering vaccines to an already vaccinated population, even when the booster dose program is advancing, but they also pose strict and interventionist requirements, such as the obligation to carry out clinical studies in Cuba with these vaccines,” the minister said.

Cuban authorities replied “respectfully,” Rodríguez said, explaining why the donation “would not contribute to improving the health of Cubans.” He did not mention which specific vaccine the U.S. government intended to provide.

The American officials, Rodriguez continued, mentioned “international mechanisms that so far have been inefficient and discriminatory,” a remark that seems to refer to Covax, a program managed by the World Health Organization to provide donated vaccines or at lower prices to developing nations.

Cuba is the only country in the region that chose not to participate in the program. Instead, it decided to develop its own vaccines. The government is currently in talks with the WHO to get the emergency authorization so it can sell its vaccines through that organization.

According to official data, 70% of the island’s population that can be vaccinated is already fully immunized. That figure also includes children as young as 2.

But while the country was still developing and testing its products, the Delta variant caused a deadly wave of cases during the summer that pushed the health system near collapse. Some patients died without care amid widespread shortages of medicines and oxygen due to a broken part in the island’s main medical-oxygen plant in late May. Cuban authorities did not disclose the production problem for more than two months, until reports by the independent media and Cubans on social media set off the alarms. Shortly after, the government mobilized the military to produce oxygen and delivery it to remote parts.

The U.S. embargo allows the sale of medicines to Cuba, but the foreign minister complained that American authorities did not issue specific licenses to export oxygen to the island during the crisis. He did not say if there were any efforts by the Cuban government to procure medical oxygen in the U.S.

Several pro-engagement organizations asked the Trump and Biden administrations to lift some sanctions to Cuba during the pandemic. The Biden administration has said it was expediting authorizations to provide humanitarian aid to the island.

President Biden said on July 15 that he would “be prepared to give significant amounts of vaccines [to Cuba],” if he was “assured an international organization would administer those vaccines.”

But Cuba “has elected not to join COVAX,” a State Department spokesperson told the Herald.

The State Department did not provide specifics on the donation offer to Cuba nor addressed why it followed up on Biden’s offer several months later.

Shortly after Biden’s statement, Cuban officials and scientists made public statements declining the offer, saying that Cuba did not need the donation because it was developing its own vaccines. But it is unclear if there was any official exchange on the issue at the time.

Cuba later accepted vaccines donated by China, a close political ally.

The timing of the U.S. donation proposal coincides with the enactment of new travel rules by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that ban foreign travelers who are unvaccinated or got shots that do not have emergency authorization from the WHO. Most Cubans, who received the local vaccines Soberana and Abdala, cannot enter the U.S. under such requirements.

The State Department’s spokesperson said the proposal made to Cuba was part of the Biden administration’s commitment to providing 1.1 billion doses to international partners, “with no political strings attached.”

“We share the Cuban people’s concern about the pandemic’s devastating effects in Cuba,” the official said. “Cuba has made a sovereign decision on how it will address the pandemic, which includes the development and use of its own vaccines.”

©2021 Miami Herald.

Visit miamiherald.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

A health care professional measures a dose of COVID vaccine at a California vaccination site on Feb. 2, 2021.
A health care professional measures a dose of COVID vaccine at a California vaccination site on Feb. 2, 2021. (Gina Ferazzi, The Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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