US blocks experts from attending Cuban biotech conference

Campaign News | Monday, 28 November 2005

Dozens of scientists denied visas

HAVANA,November 28: US authorities blocked dozens of US experts from attending a major Cuban biotechnology conference that opened here this weekend, its Cuban chairman said Saturday.

Carlos Borroto, chairman of the Havana Biotechnology Conference 2005 which opened on Sunday with some 550 specialists from 35 countries, said US authorities' lone exception was the permission to travel granted renowned US professor John Benemann.

The United States and Cuba do not have full diplomatic ties, and the United States has had a full economic embargo on the only communist-ruled country in the Americas since 1962. US nationals are not allowed to spend money in communist-ruled Cuba, an effective travel ban.

Benemann is due to give one of the keynote addresses at the conference, on alternative fuels.

Briton Chris Lamb, director of the John Innes Centre based in Britain, is due to address the group on plant disease resistance.

Experts are on hand from Britain, Canada, Germany, India, France, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Singapore, Thailand, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina and Chile, among other countries, at the week-long event at Cuba's Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center in Havana.

They will discuss developments in areas of the biotech field from marine to animal health, reproduction and recombinant protein expression in mammals, biosecurity and plant transgenesis.

Also on the agenda are issues in agro-industry, producing drugs in plants, and so-called "agro-bioproducts."

According to Barroto, Cuba is keen to highlight recent progress in alternative pharmaceuticals manufacturing and to promote sustainable food production.

The biotech issue in recent years has been a sensitive one between Cuba and the United States, which previously accused Havana of being a biological weapons threat. Cuba always has denied the charge.

As recently as March 2004, John Bolton, then-undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the US Congress in written testimony that the island "remains a terrorist and (biological weapons) threat to the United States."

Bolton's charge came as part of a 25-page written statement on the development and spread of nuclear, chemical and biological arms, despite the fact George W. Bush's administration had gently backed away from the same allegations after Bolton made them in May 2002 and did not offer evidence.

Bolton more specifically said Cuba had been successful at hiding details of its weapons program due to data passed to Havana by convicted spy Ana Belen Montes, ex-senior Cuba analyst for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. Montes is serving 25 years in federal prison having pleaded guilty to spying for Cuba in 2002.

Cuba, which the US State Department lists as a state sponsor of terrorism, was outraged by the charge Bolton made in May 2002 and demanded that the US government offer proof. It did not.

On June 5, 2002 Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research Carl Ford conceded in testimony before Congress that Washington did not have evidence Havana had a full-fledged biological weapons "program" but maintained the administration was worried about Havana's capabilities.

Havana is fiercely proud of its biotech industry's development of vaccines and medicines that are more affordable for developing countries.

Cuba, which markets its vaccines and biotech products in 40 countries worldwide, also hopes to make inroads into new markets and turn the pharmaceuticals industry into a bigger international hard-currency earner.

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