Push for trials of Cuban diabetes drug trial tests support for U.S. embargo

Miami HeraldOctober 8, 2013 

In a significant break with Cuban exile leaders, Miami Congressman Joe Garcia is supporting the efforts of a Havana research institute that wants U.S. approval to test and market a diabetes treatment in this country.

Garcia’s endorsement marks the first time a Cuban-American in Congress has overtly backed a measure that, in the eyes of critics, undermines the embargo and could eventually give the Castro government access to U.S. markets without making democratic reforms.

The move splits the Cuban-American congressional delegation for the first time, could become a campaign issue in the Democrat’s reelection campaign and, more broadly, indicates a shift in Miami politics as the exile community’s power appears to wane amid new waves of immigrants.

Garcia said his decision was not political, but was intended to help people who suffer from diabetic foot ulcers.

“This is about something that can maybe save lives. This is about medicine,” Garcia said. “There are 70,000 amputations that happen yearly from diabetes. I’m not going to be the guy who decides that people will suffer because of the embargo.”

But the political significance is tough for experts to ignore.

“This is a ‘wow’ situation. Nothing like this has ever happened,” said Mauricio Font, a Latin America studies expert at the City University of New York. “In the past, this position would essentially be considered collaborating with the Castro regime.

“But today, my guess is that things are starting to change,” Font said. “Many Cubans in the United States would not be shocked, had come here long after Castro came to power, and wouldn’t be opposed to something like this.”

Behind the effort is a longtime ally of Garcia’s: former Massachusetts U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, a longtime critic of U.S. Cuba policy who now lobbies for New Jersey-based Healiance Pharmaceutical.

Garcia said Delahunt, a Democrat, pitched him on the proposal as well as Republican John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and later White House chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush.

After Garcia met with the two last week, his office helped circulate letters in Congress to gain support for testing and marketing of the diabetic foot-ulcer treatment, Herberprot-B, in the United States.

Under U.S.-Cuba trade restrictions, an office of the U.S. Department of the Treasury would have to license the foot-ulcer therapy in the United States because it was developed by an arm of the Castro government, Cuba’s Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.

The trade restrictions are intended to keep Cuba from profiting from access to U.S. markets without making democratic reforms on the island.

“The lack of access to an effective treatment for this life-threatening condition, which afflicts millions of Americans and results in billions of dollars of direct medical costs, is a serious unmet medical need for the American people that should be viewed as a human issue and not as part of a Cold War-era political one,” said a draft of a letter to be sent to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

The letter says the therapy has been used in 16 countries to treat 100,000 people with high risk of amputation from diabetic foot ulcers.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, cast doubt on the claims.

“The Castro regime does a lot of publicity for miracle cures that don’t work and don’t help the Cuban people,” she said. “It certainly will be helpful to the regime in terms of publicity.”

Ros-Lehtinen said she saw a copy of the letters — one to Lew, the other to members of Congress — and she expressed concern that neither mentioned Healiance or its parent company, Digen Pharmaceuticals, by name. Delahunt did not return calls or an email for comment.

Ros-Lehtinen said this is the first time she can remember a Cuban-American member of Congress “supporting something that will be helpful to the regime.”

Congress has seven Cuban-American members. Garcia, who once headed the hard-line Cuban American National Foundation, is the only one who appears to support the move.

The effort is being run out of the office of Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. A handful of Democrats — some of them major critics of U.S. Latin America policy — have signed on, including Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who joined Delahunt as a member of a U.S. delegation that attended the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in March.

The letter was shared with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, head of the Democratic National Committee, but she declined to sign it, an aide said.

Wasserman Schultz’s position is a sign of how “there was no daylight, no distance between us when it came to Cuba in the South Florida delegation,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami.

“We’re dealing with a state sponsor of terrorism that, at this time, is holding an American hostage,” Diaz-Balart said, referring to imprisoned contractor Alan Gross. “This is a state sponsor of terror that was just caught shipping arms to another state sponsor of terror, North Korea. This is a state sponsor of terror that has an active espionage network.”

Diaz-Balart’s brother, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, twice fought similar efforts to bring Cuban-U.S. pharmaceutical partnerships to the United States. At least two were approved under President George W. Bush.

Garcia said a 2009 comment from Diaz-Balart’s chief of staff indicated the former Republican congressman did not oppose the research, but Diaz-Balart said the comment was misconstrued.

It has been tougher holding a hard line on Cuba in the era of President Barack Obama, who loosened Cuba travel and remittance policies.

It did not appear to hurt Obama’s election chances, either, with Florida exit polls indicating he either narrowly lost or even won Florida’s Cuban-American vote, once a reliable Republican bloc.

The island’s current dictator, Raúl Castro, has loosened travel restrictions, too. Coupled with generous U.S. policies for Cuban immigrants, more have come to the United States in recent years.

The influx of new Cuban-American arrivals has led to some tensions between those who identify themselves as political exiles and newcomers who are more like economic immigrants.

The growing numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics are also changing the complexion of South Florida and its politics.

Garcia’s congressional district, which stretches from suburban Miami-Dade to Key West, is about 65 percent Hispanic and majority Cuban-American. One of Garcia’s Republican opponents, Carlos Curbelo, has made Cuba policy a key issue in the race.

“Let the people who want to talk politics go and talk politics,” Garcia said. “This is about a treatment that’s designed to help Americans. And these are just tests. If it’s a hoax, then someone’s out a lot of money. But if the treatment works, why wouldn’t we do this?”

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