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.