By Rosa Miriam Elizalde/ Cubadebate
He is doctor of profession, Biochemistry specialist, with oncology studies at Pasteur Institute, of Paris. Since its foundation in 1994, he runs the Center of Molecular Immunology, of Havana.
He has a sheet seating on his desk and it’s impossible not to see it. The paper has been lying there long enough, even the plastic folder that protects it is colorless: “I belong to the side of the impatient, the side of those in a hurry, those who push so things work all right and the side of those who many times try to do more than one can”. The phrase belongs to Fidel, says before beginning the interview Doctor Agustín Lage Dávila, Head of the Center of Molecular Immunology (CMI), of Havana, a man who not only has the impatience, but the example of scientist like Einstein and having an impressive curriculum.
He’s doctor of profession, Biochemistry specialist, with studies on Oncology at Pasteur Institute, of Paris. Since its foundation in 1994, the CMI, center with a thousand of workers and unique results for such poor country: it develops “molecular vaccines”, antibodies engineering, cellular engineering, bioinformatics and regulation of immune response. “Or simply, biotechnology which is using a live cell as a factory to produce things”, he explains.
But we won’t be speaking of this – he promises there will be a second encounter -, but about a fact impossible to avoid these days: the announcement made by the Presidents of Cuba and USA about moving toward the reestablishment of diplomatic relationships and, in the long run, the normalization of bilateral relationships. It’s undeniable that new airs of Washington shake the national agenda and there are debates in every domestic sectors, included that of sciences. What can a scientist like Agustín Lage say on this regard?
That is topic to be discussed and here is an excerpt of an hour stolen from his time, in a place always busy like the “emergency room of Calixto García Hospital”, in his own words.
A victory of Cuban endurance
- What can you associate with December 17, 2014?
- The stage change in the historic disagreement between Cuba and the United States. The declarations of the U.S. President last December 17, indeed, it’s a change we see as a victory of the endurance of the Cuban town. We had a simile talking with our personnel: this looks like the double baseball game of Sundays. Obviously, the first ball game we won it, no one can argue with that. Now we just have to play the second match, because the game is not over yet. The second comes now with other challenges.
- A Lane II with steroids?
- Not exactly, because the Lane II is the arrogant ignorance of the institutionalism of the Cuban State. Now the starting point is the resuming of diplomatic relationships and that explicitly means the recognition of our institutions. Here lies, in my opinion, a key change that supposes for thinkers and strategists of imperialism a step backwards. They accept that the tactics have failed them.
- But the great strategy remains intact, that is, the régime change in Cuba to impose the U.S. political model.
- Because this disagreement between both countries didn’t begin yesterday, neither half a century ago. It’s over 200 years old. It did not start with the socialist option of the Cuban Revolution, it goes way back. We’d need to search the origins of expansionist ambition with which the North American nation was born and the diametrical opposition between the thinking of the U.S. founding fathers and Jose Martí’s thinking. There are two different conceptions on how human coexistence should be. And those two conceptions have taken root in the culture of both nations. Therefore, that difference in the notion of society won’t go away in more than 200 years. We have, like President Raúl Castro said, to learn how to live together civilized with those differences, which are deep.
What it’s really important here it’s not a controversy for the nationalized properties, neither certain political incidents that have taken place throughout half a century. The main difference has to do with the type of society that builds the Cuban culture and the type of society that builds the North American culture. They are very different. Let’s not forget that in the Independence of the Cuban nation, the first act of day one was to free the slaves, while the Independence of the 13 colonies of the United States kept slavery and it took decades and another war to eliminate it. In the original conception of the U.S. founding fathers did not appear the equality of all human beings. In ours it does. That gives you the idea of two social thinking that follow different path, and the contradiction with which we need to live.
There was always a dialogue with the scientists from the U.S.
- Are those differences equally seen in the scientific community of both countries?
- No. In decades of confrontation between both countries there has always been proximity between the North American scientific community and the Cuban scientists. That has always been present. Of course, tinged or limited by the blockade and the hostility of the North American politics toward Cuba. In this very Center, for 20 years now, we summon every two years an international scientific event of Cancer Immunotherapy. The foreign country that sends more scientists to that event is the U.S. But not now: in 1994, 1996, 1998, more ideologically complex years and in the heart of the Economic Crisis, when the North American thinkers and ideologists of capitalism imagined the triumph of their ideology. And a lot of people worldwide thought likewise.
- Why are the scientists less prejudiced?
- The characteristic of the human activity we do, Science makes the approach easier. As a principle, I am very far from thinking that Science is the center of the world. Science is not man’s only intelligent activity, of course. The key of Science is objectivity, the attachment to verifiable data; and the down side of it is the reductionism. In order to be objective you must reduce complex phenomena to simple variables and there are phenomena that cannot be reduced to those variables. Therefore, science has huge potentialities and it also has limitations.
But the scientist is too attached to the objective worth of the data, to check what it tells you. When you discuss with people mentally trained to search the facts and interpret them, many things are simplified. Those scientists come here and see the facts in Cuba, the achievements of the Revolution, also the problems we face, but they analyze them, study them, and that element of objectivity allows a dialogue among the scientific communities from different countries, with a common ground to connect. You can have scientists of different nationalities and different cultural roots in one room, and you will discover that they understand each other perfectly, because they speak a common language.
- Does this has anything to do with the fact that, despite the blockade, the United States issued a special license for the transfer to that country of the technology of a Cuban therapeutic vaccine for lung cancer?
- Indeed. This Center signed a contract with a North American company in 2004 and in the presence of Commander in Chief, to develop a vaccine jointly against lung cancer. The patent of the product was ours and the Department of Treasure granted the License, during Bush administration. It is evident that such authorization, in that kind of government, is not obtained without consulting.
- How did that exchange evolve?
- It ended because that North American company had financial problems, related to the failure of other projects different to the one they had with us. It ended for other reasons that had nothing to do with the collaboration with us. But the project lasted several years, we worked together all that time and a contract was signed that implied payments of the North Americans towards Cuba. We charge what was specified in the contract, after meeting our duties. This proves that, if there is political will, the blockade can be lifted or minimized.
As for the managerial collaboration, this has been the only experience between both countries, but there are many academic collaborations. Right now groups of our investigators works in the U.S. in projects of cancer immunotherapy, and North American patients have been treated with our products. That is, the possibility of collaboration with North American scientists has always been on the table, still in moments of maximum hostility from Washington.
“Not only Cuba has a lot to win in that exchange, North American scientists can also win, because our approaches to different topics can be different.”
Opportunity and risk
- Is Washington’s new attitude an opportunity or a risk?
- Both things. Firstly it’s an opportunity because the collaboration and the dialogue are always opportunities. Collaboration is profitable for the scientific and economic development. Besides, it cannot be denied that the U.S. holds an enormous scientific potential. But this is an opportunity for us and for them. Science has a huge cultural component and it’s carried out in the same way everywhere regarding the scientific method, but disregarding the content of what is investigated, the strategy of what is investigated. That difference must be well outlined, because the scientific method is an objective procedure, but the scientific creativity is a cultural phenomenon. Every human society benefits from the exchange with other different human society. That spreading of ideas enriches everyone. Not only Cuba has a lot to win in that exchange, North American scientists can also win, because our approaches to different topics can be different.
- In a context where Cuba has invested largely is the human capital.
- And that reaches all of society. There are countries with great poverty, social exclusion, and illiteracy, and right in the middle of that chaos you find a scientific center that makes you thing you are in England, completely out of context. That is not Cuba. Here you can go to the Company of Various Growing of Yaguajay – where I go so often because of my work as Deputy -, you start working alongside them on the furrow and you find four engineers. The growing of human capital has not been elitist, but massive, and that creates a different context, specially for the application of scientific results. That allows approaches to the scientific work that are not suitable in another kind of context. There is really an opportunity. For both countries.
- But there are also risks…
- Yes, mistakes that both parts can make – I am speaking of those mistakes that can commit from the U.S. those who undertake this roach to approach Cuba with ethically transparent intentions; I don’t mean the others, the unethical personalities that have always existed and they will still exist.
The huge mistake that both parts can make is that of naivety. On the Cuban side we cannot be naïve of not knowing that there’s a deep difference of strategy in the construction of society, and North Americans cannot be naïve of believing that this is the opportunity to absorb the Cuban society, a naivety on their behalf would derail the train of negotiations. Both parts can undertake the road without falling in those naiveties, it can work.
- The possibility of absorption is not something hidden, the highest officials in United States have spoken clearly. The Undersecretary of State Roberta Jacobson expressed it in Havana, to the journalists. I was witness.
- It would be naïve of them to believe they can achieve that absorption, they would ignore the strength of the Cuban cultural roots. We’ve been through that before. In the American continent there hasn’t been an operation of absorption bigger than the one implemented against Cuba in the early 30’s of the 20 th Century: military intervention, Platt Amendment, control of the economy… all the conditions were ready, and they could not annihilate the Cuban culture. The Revolution triumphed in 1959 and a week later everybody was antimperialist. That means antimperialism was in the national roots, it was in the people. The only thing to be done was to bring it out, and that happened despite 50 years of U.S. dominance.
The battle of Playa Girón took place two years and three months after the Victory of January 1st and in that battle the people went, massively, to fight against the imperialism. How do you explain that after 50 years of massive economic, cultural, and political influence of the U.S.? The lesson to be learned out of this, is that it exists, unquestionably, a solid cultural and ethics root in the origin of the Cuban nation against which 50 years of North American cultural penetration could not prevail. What reasons do they have to believe they can do it now, after 50 years of Revolution?
We only have a huge problem
-Why do you think we are also taking the risk of being naïve?
-Because we may forget that the U.S. still have the same goals. If we can avoid being naïve, there will be profits for Cuba, the U.S., Latin America, and even the world. Thus, it will allow us to focus more on our main problem. I believe present Cuban society has one problem: the economic one. All other problems have emerged as a result of it. We must find a creative solution for this problem.
-Countries with an awesome economic rise have leant on a huge internal market; for instance, China. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have experienced a growth in their economy thanks to their natural resources. Cuba has none of these things. We have not a domestic market to industrialize the country, nor the natural resources to finance an economic development. We have to create an economic development based on science and technology. There is no other way. That should be our target.
-How would you do that?
-It is not written anywhere. This is an intellectual and cultural challenge for Cubans. We should face it and other things will derive from it. Facing successfully such economic problems means to validate the development concept we have, based on social equity, and a helpful society. If we fail in this project, then we will be validating the strategy of every man for himself. Then, everyone must solve his own economic problem. It will lead to the fragmentation of society. That is why the economic problem is a cultural challenge for all Cubans.
-Can we become a flourishing society without being socialist?
-I don’t think so. Economic growth and socialism are linked in Cuba. The possibility of building a prosperous and unequal society does not exist and we regret there are some people who do not understand it. Cuban culture does not brook the average unequal standards in other countries. This may work in other places, not here. A society with big disparities would brew groups whose interests grow apart from the development of all society.
A society like ours, which has to develop on scientific and technological basis for economic reasons, is incompatible with a subordination to the open market, competition, all those concepts related to neoliberalism that have never developed any country. There are powerful countries that have strong scientific development and poor countries having none at all. There is certainly a correlation. But correlation is one thing, and causality is another. Likewise, there is a certain stage of resources and prosperity. And you could finance a scientific development with them. However, it does not necessarily mean such resources and prosperity have emerged due to the scientific development.
The origin of prosperity in developed countries has nothing to do with science. The conquering of the Americas played a paramount role in Europe’s development. It is not an option nowadays for developing countries. Therefore, our economic prosperity must rely on science and technology with deep roots in socialism and equal society, or it would not happen. I believe we Cuban people have built enough ethics and culture to achieve it.
Cubasi Translation Staff