A group of House Democrats is urging the Biden administration to further soften sanctions against Cuba to aid distribution of the Caribbean nation’s COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.
In a letter led by Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the lawmakers praised President Biden’s loosening of travel and remittance restrictions to the island, while asking for bilateral cooperation on public health.
“As an initial step, we ask that you review U.S. policy towards Cuba in order to facilitate greater global vaccine equity, with a particular focus on ensuring that U.S. sanctions do not impede current or future efforts by Cuba to share COVID-19 vaccines and related technology and medical support with low-income countries around the world,” they wrote.
The Democrats’ appeal is certain to anger proponents of a harsher Cuba policy on either side of the aisle.
But the Biden administration has shown willingness to slowly reconsider restrictions imposed on the communist island by the Trump administration, particularly on policy areas with humanitarian ramifications.
“We agree with your administration’s approach that seeks to ‘address the humanitarian situation and respond to the needs of the Cuban people,'” wrote the lawmakers.
The Democrats’ appeal also rests on the need for COVID-19 vaccinations for low-income countries that either cannot afford vaccines that have become widespread in richer countries, or where conditions make it difficult to widely distribute vaccines that require special care, like refrigeration.
“While over 75 percent of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose, only 10 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose,” wrote the lawmakers.
Cuba, despite its economic limitations, has historically punched above its weight in public health policy.
The Caribbean nation has a COVID-19 vaccination rate of more than 90 percent, despite limitations on importing precursors and equipment to develop its own vaccination program.
The lawmakers said the Cuban vaccines, produced at reduced cost with limited infrastructure, could assist the Biden administration’s goal to distribute cheap and effective vaccines worldwide.
“U.S. sanctions on Cuba directly impede these goals, not only by harming the country’s ability to vaccinate its own population but also by placing obstacles in the way of Cuba’s ability to produce and distribute its vaccine to other countries that continue to face shortages,” wrote the Democrats.
Still, the lawmakers recognized that Cuba’s vaccine success has yet to be fully verified by the international medical community, despite evidence of its success.
“It is important to note that the World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine review process with regard to the Cuban-developed vaccines is not public at the moment and Cuba’s vaccine clinical trial data has yet to undergo international scientific peer review,” they wrote.
“However, Cuba and the WHO have met twice to begin the Emergency Use Listing process, and the efficacy of these vaccines has been further demonstrated by sharp declines in COVID-19 cases and deaths in Cuba since the vaccination campaign,” they added.
The Democrats called on Biden to target specific policies that make medical cooperation difficult, including removing Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, “which restricts and intimidates financial institutions from allowing transactions related to medical equipment,” and adding Cuban vaccines to the list of vaccines recognized by the U.S.