Scorpions Bred In Cuba For Anti-Cancer Venom

CIEGO DE AVILA (Cuba), June 21 (PRENSA LATINA) — The breeding of scorpions in captivity is progressing in this central Cuban province under a national program to increase the production of medicine for treating cancer.

Specialists of the Pharmaceutical Biological Laboratory (LABIOFAM) in Ciego de Avila extract venom from the “Rhopalurus junceus” scorpion to make the medicine.

Between 900 and 1,000 milliliters of the toxin are obtained monthly in the laboratory located in the city of Moron and sent to LABIOFAM in Havana for processing, sources said.

Madelin Hilacha, quality control technician at the center said that they can obtain five drops of venom from each scorpion, depending on the concentration of protein and the scorpion’s strength.

The scorpions are captured from rocky, damp areas, especially in the cays north of Ciego de Avila and in the municipality of Florencia, areas rich in the animals.

The captured scorpions are classified and kept in containers with the necessary water and food for about two years and then they are returned to their natural habitat, to preserve the species, Hilacha said.

The anticancer effect of their venom was discovered 20 years ago in Guantanamo, prompting more detailed research, he said.

The toxoin obtained from the scorpion venom has benefited thousands of Cuban and foreign patients from Europe and Latin America, in the treatment of lung, breast, uterus, colon, prostate and pancreas cancer. It has also been shown to have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, Cuban medical sources said.

Cuba, Now: Viva la Commercial Revolución


With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the focus on future trips to the country is growing wildly. A Jaunted special secret correspondent just returned from a period in Cuba, and she’ll be sharing her impressions of the country, the people and their hopes all this week.

What struck me most powerfully on arriving in Havana was the complete absence of advertising.

Traveling to Cuba from the world’s commercial super-center—the USA—is like diving from a hot, sweaty and crowded monkey cage into a refreshingly vast and empty pool. There is nothing in most Cuban shops beyond a packet of dried black beans and some powdered custard—the same brand, always the same brand. You can’t buy or sell a car made after Castro’s 1959 communist revolution. Toasters and other domestic essentials were until recently banned. Decadent, capitalist toasters!

So the question is: are Cubans ready for the commercial revolution that will sweep through the island like a rainy-season hurricane the moment the US embargo falls?

The answer: a qualified yes. Havana’s streets buzz with the first signs of commercialism, appearing like spring daffodils out of hard, barren soil. Privately-owned restaurants (paladares) and guesthouses (casas particulares) are reaching a critical mass; there are art and photo galleries, mobile phone stores, the odd shop (with uniformed guard) selling Adidas sneakers. You can even, in some places, get hold of a can of real Coke.

The delicate sensibilities of tourists are increasingly being understood, particularly in the tourist haven of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Gleaming hotels part-owned by Spanish investors serve pumpkin ravioli and pungent French wines, and crumbling mansions are being scrubbed clean and brought back to life with the help of tourist dollars and a sprightly, visionary City Historian named Eusebio Leal.

Cubans have already developed a taste for tourism, thanks to the 2.5 million or so Canadians and Europeans who already visit the island each year. Which is lucky, because apart from nickel, cigars, Ché memorabilia and medicines made from sugar cane and placenta (not lying), there isn’t much else sustaining the stagnant Cuban economy.

Anti-American sentiment is still rife in propaganda—George Dubya and Ronald Reagan share a ‘Cretins’ Corner’ in the Revolution Museum—but on the streets people talk enthusiastically about a possible influx of American tourists. Standing in a shaft of sunlight on Plaza Vieja, a bookseller with a neatly pressed necktie and eyes burning with revolutionary zeal told me how, thanks to socialism, he could read, write, feed his family and last October have a much-needed hernia operation. “I’m socialist hasta las entrañas,” he said—right to my entrails (perhaps, I thought, due to the hernia operation). “Viva la revolución! But you know, I’d love to sell these books to Americans.” The fire in his pupils turned to a glint.

The moral of the story:

If you like your beaches to come with clean toilets, ice, window-shopping and all the other trappings of a fully developed commercial culture, then wait at least ten years after the embargo is dropped.

If you want a glimpse of another world—twisted, surreal and colorful as a Picasso painting, where people still eat to live and wear clothes for warmth—then come now, or just as the Cuban people break down their wall. In between will be chaos.

Vegetarians push soy, but Cubans prefer pork

The Washington Post:

HAVANA — Juicy hamburgers and sandwiches stuffed thick with sausage aren’t your typical vegetarian fare – but that’s what is on the menu at El Carmelo, a state-run restaurant originally founded to promote healthy, meat-free eating.

“Meat-free” is not a phrase that goes over well in Cuba, an island where long-standing privations have forged a strong, emotional bond with food – especially cuisine that once oinked, mooed or clucked.

Facing the harsh reality of its tough customers, El Carmelo eventually replaced such vegetarian items as soy picadillo with greasy pork chops.

That has been the fate of the island’s half-dozen or so other vegetarian restaurants as well. Opened in the 2000s under the Communist government’s go-vegetarian initiative, they have all either closed down completely or replaced soy and vegetables with meat.

It’s Cuba’s dilemma: How can the government promote healthy eating when the country is full of die-hard carnivores, and when vegetarian meals remind people of an acute food shortage in the early 1990s that made meat an almost unattainable luxury?

Elsewhere in the world, vegetarianism is gaining proponents who cite evidence that eating less meat is good for your heart and reduces the risk of certain types of cancer.

But in Cuba, the island’s handful of vegetarians face an uphill battle. Meat is such a central pillar of the Cuban diet, or at least the idea of the Cuban diet, that the rare decision to embrace vegetarianism is widely seen as bordering on insanity.

“When I tell people I’m a vegetarian, everyone says ‘Girl, you’re crazy. You can’t survive just on grass,'” said Yusmini Rodriguez, a 34-year-old translator who stopped eating meat 13 years ago out of ethical concerns.

“It’s been a constant battle,” she said, detailing obstacles that ran the gamut from her family’s incomprehension and dead-set opposition, to the scarcity and sometimes prohibitively high prices of fresh produce, to the near-total absence of meatless options from restaurant and cafeteria menus.

“My family still doesn’t get it, but after all these years, at least they finally respect my decision, so eating vegetarian at home is doable now, even if it’s a headache,” said Rodriguez, a slip of a woman whose tiny frame belies her iron will. “But the moment I step outside, it’s practically impossible. Here, if it doesn’t have meat in it, it’s not considered food.”

Rodriguez and some of the other dozen members of the island’s vegetarian community say the Cubans’ love affair with meat is linked to the country’s “Special Period”: an era of extreme hardship and acute food shortages in the early 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main benefactor at the time.

The country’s rations system ensured no one starved to death by providing every citizen with a small monthly supply of basic goods. But Cubans experienced true hunger during those dark years, missing many meals, making do with very small and unappetizing ones, and going months without meat. The average food intake dropped from 2,865 calories per day before the Special Period to 1,863 in 1993, according to French journalist Olivier Languepin’s book “Cuba, the Failure of a Utopia.”

“It was a time of forced vegetarianism that left a really bad taste in people’s mouths,” said Nora Garcia Perez, a militant vegetarian who heads a Havana-based animal protection group. “The ‘Special Period’ really hurt the cause of vegetarianism in this country. … Meat became an obsession for people who lived through that time.”

The country’s food supplies have since recovered, and most people are now able to eat some kind of meat several times a month. Many eat it daily, sprinkling bits of pork, chicken or fat onto workaday dishes like rice and beans or eating ham and cheese sandwiches at lunch stands.

Ironically for a fertile, tropical country, it’s fresh produce that remains hardest to get. Even during the height of the winter growing season, the selection at state-run vegetable markets is largely limited to lettuce and cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, bell peppers and a variety of tubers.

Restaurateur Tito Nunez has made it his mission to put produce back into the Cuban diet.

Nunez converted to vegetarianism in the early 1990s because it eased his chronic intestinal problems. In 2003, he founded El Romero, billed as an eco-restaurant and one of the island’s two surviving vegetarian eateries.

Located in the Las Terrazas natural reserve of rolling, palm-covered hills about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Havana, El Romero goes beyond garden-variety vegetables, spinning forgotten and little-known plants into delectable dishes.

On its extensive menu: ceviche made from the stems of lily pads that grow wild on a nearby pond, yucca and sweet potato “meatballs,” pumpkin flower-paste crepes, sauteed prickly pear cactus with aromatic herbs, and for dessert, mousse made from chocolate, lemon and pumpkin, wrapped in a palm leaf.

“Cubans tend to think, ‘If it’s not rice and beans or pork, I’m not eating it,’ so when people see all these plants they’ve never even heard of on the menu, they tend to be really reluctant at first,” said Nunez, a 58-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and an easy smile. “Then they try the food and see that it’s not just ‘grass’ we’re serving, and that in addition to being healthy and animal-friendly, it’s also really delicious.”

Nunez has worked to make El Romero accessible to locals by offering neighborhood youths apprenticeships with the cooks and at the restaurant’s organic farm, where most of the ingredients are sourced. And to make the restaurant affordable for islanders, who earn an average of $20 a month, El Romero charges its Cuban clients just a fraction of the menu’s list price.

Still, despite its success, 90 percent of El Romero’s clients remain foreigners, mostly tourists from Britain, Germany and Holland.

“When you’re dealing with something as ingrained as eating habits, it’s just about the hardest thing to change,” Nunez said.

“I know that I’m not going to turn people into vegetarians by just talking about it. The only way to convince people is by sitting them down at the table and showing them there’s so much out there besides pork.”

Cuban healthcare, the US and George Galloway


The US sought out stories of Cuban medical malpractice in order to discredit the island’s free universal healthcare system, a leaked diplomatic cable shows.

The US interest section in Havana (Usint) said in a 2006 cable that it considered such stories a weapon against Cuba’s “self-congratulatory propaganda”:

NEWS: Usint is always looking for human interest stories and other news that shatters the myth of Cuban medical prowess, which has become a key feature of the regime’s foreign policy and its self-congratulatory propaganda. Two articles appeared this week in our roundup of news about Cuba that we collect and disseminate daily:

• Dateline 31 May: Jamaican Dr Albert Lue has publicly denounced Cuban medical incompetency in handling Jamaican patients who traveled to Cuba for eye surgery. Of 60 such patients he surveyed, three were left permanently blind and another 14 returned to Jamaica with permanent cornea damage.

• Dateline 1 June: 14,000 Bolivian doctors are on strike to protest the 600 Cuban doctors who have been shipped into the country, with no concern as to displacement or unemployment among the Bolivian doctors, or qualifications of the Cubans.

The quote came to light on a user-requested search for George Galloway. Of the former Respect MP, US diplomats write that their UK counterparts told them they were put in what the same cable calls an “embarassing situation” on his recent visit to Cuba.

Galloway had just given an interview to GQ magazine where he had said that while he would not call for it, Tony Blair’s assassination by a suicide bomber would be “morally justified”. The cable said of the British embassy staff: “On the one hand they wanted to at least go through the motions of offering assistance to an MP; on the other hand they thought it better not to be seen or photographed next to Galloway, who had just released a statement saying that it would be just fine if somebody killed Tony Blair.”

Cuba and Italia to Strengthen Exchange on Surgery

HAVANA, Cuba, Nov 3 (acn) The Cuban Surgery Society (CSS) and the Italian Association for the Development of Surgical Sciences penned a letter of intent to develop technical and scientific exchange efforts between both countries.

The document was signed as part of the 11th Cuban International Conference on Surgery underway at the Convention Center of Havana with 300 experts from 15 countries in attendance.

The event includes a Cuba-Italy day and the Regional Meeting of the Latin American Surgery Federation.

As part of the Conference, the CSS named Pascual Berloco and Maximiliano Mungo Members of Honor of the Society. The two personalities are the first members from the Italian Association to receive the honorary title.

Italian ambassador to Cuba Marco Baccin and Senator Domenico Gramazio,
vice deputy chairman of the health commission of the Italian Parliament attended the ceremony.

Cuban to release new drug against cancer

HAVANA, Oct. 26 (Xinhua) — Cuba is about to release to the international market a new homeopathic drug by using the scorpion venom, an official from the local Labiofam Labs said on Tuesday.

Isabel Gonzalez, research and development director of the scientific institution, said the new drug “Vidatox,” processed from the blue scorpion venom, has been tested successfully in over 10,000 patients, whose quality of life was improved and their tumors stopped growing.

“Almost 1 million doses of the product will be available to the patients before the end of the year,” she said.

The Vidatox was developed after the scientific work of the Cuban biologist Misael Bordier, who experimented with the venom of the small blue scorpion, which only lives in the Cuban province of Guantanamo.

Bordier has studied for 21 years the clinical effects of the scorpion venom as a therapy to fight tumors.

Seventy percent of the 50,000 patients treated by Bordier in those years had no recurrence of tumors, according to his own words.

Cuba has developed other natural drugs which have proven to be effective to fight tumors. The country’s biotechnological products is the third income source for the country, after professional services abroad and tourism.

Cuba, Syria sign agreement on pharmaceuticals

HAVANA (AFP) – Cuba signed an agreement with Syria Friday to sell the Arab country anti-cancer drugs, vaccines and technology for producing human placenta derivatives, the Cuban press said Friday.

The official Communist Party newspaper Granma said the agreements anticipate the creation in Syria of a center “for the production of human placenta derivatives.”

Monoclonal antibodies, an unidentified vaccine and drugs to suppress the growth of cancer tumors also were registered for sale in Syria, the newspaper said.

The agreements were signed by Syrian Health Minister, Rida Adnan, and Cuba’s Science, Technology and Environment Minister Jose Miyar Barruecos.

Research into the use of human placenta in the medical world has increased in recent years, with scientists identifying placenta-based stem cells that could be used in therapy in which the regenerative cells are introduced into damaged tissue to treat disease or injury.

One-Of-A-Kind Cuban Medicine in the Biotechnology Spotlight

Prensa latina: 08/30/2010. A unique Cuban medicine will be the highlight of the Habana 2010 International Biotechnology Congress – HEBERPROT-P, a successful treatment for diabetic foot ulcers.

Registered in Cuba since 2006, HERBERPROT-P has helped some 10,000 patients in Cuba, Venezuela, Algeria and Argentina, and now will be part of discussions on the comprehensive treatment of that condition during the October 20-22 congress.

In addition, symposiums will be held on the molecular biology of epidermal growth factor and its pharmacogenomics, Luis Herrera, president of the event’s organizing committee, told the National News Agency (AIN).

HEBERPROT-P is a product based on recombinant human growth factor which allows ulcers to heal and reduces the need for amputations in most cases.

Developed by the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in western Havana, HEBERPROT-P is used in a dozen nations and is one of the essential medications used to treat Cuban patients, Herrera said.

Diabetic foot ulcers are one of the complications with the worst medical evolution and with the most expenses involved in health care worldwide, the CIGB director commented.

Cuba’s subsidized cigarettes going up in smoke

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba is phasing out its longstanding monthly allotments of subsidized cigarettes as President Raul Castro works to jump-start the island’s sputtering economy.

Beginning next month, some 2.5 million Cubans over the age of 54 no longer will get their four packs of cigarettes as part of the country’s ration program, the government announced on Wednesday.

“The Council of Ministers has resolved to eliminate cigarettes from the rationed family basket as of September as part of the measures gradually being adopted to limit state subsidies,” an official statement said.

The cigarettes “are not a primary necessity,” it said.

Castro has said that communist-ruled Cuba’s ration system eventually will be eliminated as he moves to modernize the economy.

Monthly allotments of chickpeas, potatoes and a pound (0.45 kg) of sugar were removed from the system this year.

Many subsidized items were cut in the 1990s after the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union plunged the island into a deep recession.

But allotments of inexpensive cigarettes for Cubans born before 1956 were kept in place.


Local economists estimate the ration of rice, beans and other staples provides enough food for less than two weeks, leaving many Cubans to turn to state-run stores and markets.

Castro, since taking over from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008, has pushed to restructure the centralized economy, which has been battered by hurricanes, the global financial crisis and chronic inefficiencies.

He has called for the elimination of all subsidies, and such things as state-sponsored honeymoons and vacations already have been cut. But Cubans would still enjoy free health care, education and social security.

Castro recently announced plans to lay off 1 million workers over five years, or a fifth of the labor force, and has called for more family farming, self-employment and small business creation to make up for cuts in the state’s payroll.

Cuba is an important tobacco and cigar producer and boasts one of the world’s highest per-capita rates of smokers.

Unlike many countries where cigarettes are heavily taxed, Cuba sells unfiltered black tobacco cigarettes for as little as 7 pesos a pack at state stores, or around 40 cents, while the allotted packs cost just 2 to 3 pesos.

Retirees can often be seen on Havana’s streets selling their subsidized cigarettes for 5 pesos a pack.

“This is a blow for the elderly like me,” 82-year-old Esperanza Rodriguez said. “It was like a little bit of money they gave us each month.”

Cuba slashes US food imports 28 percent through 1st half of ’10, despite key bill in Congress

HAVANA –  HAVANA (AP) — Cash-strapped Cuba has continued to slash agricultural purchases from the U.S. even as a key bill that would ease Washington’s Cuban travel ban and make it easier to sell more food to the island works its way through Congress, according to a report released Thursday.

Imports fell 28 percent through the first six months of the year to about $220 million. That follows a 26 percent slippage to $528 million in 2009, down from a peak of $710 million the year before, according to the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Economic Trade Council.

“There are no indications that the Cuban economy is going to rebound to the extent that the Cuban government will be able to substantially increase its level of purchasing of food and agricultural products to those it reached in years past,” John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the council, said by telephone.

The island has been weakened by the global economic crisis and a drop in revenues from tourism and the natural resources it exports. It is also struggling to recover from three hurricanes two summers ago.

The council does not include shipping and transaction costs when calculating Cuban funds spent on U.S. imports, meaning its figures are lower than those Havana releases.

Still, all sides agree the communist government has reduced imports from all its major trading partners. It has made a special effort to stop buying foreign food, however, while launching campaigns to increase domestic farm production.

But so far, food output across Cuba has remained mostly stagnant, and the cuts in imports have sparked periodic shortages of such staples as rice.

U.S. farm exporters have been hit especially hard by Cuba’s belt-tightening because — despite the 48-year-old trade embargo against the island — America is the largest seller of food to Cuba. Food and agriculture products have been exempted from the embargo since 2000, though Cuba must pay cash up front.

The island originally balked at the law, but a 2001 hurricane hurt food production and gave it little choice. Today, Cubans getting food from monthly ration books eat chicken from Arkansas. Upscale island markets stock everything from Kellogg’s cereal to Heinz ketchup.

Kavulich said Cuba has made up for some of its recent cutbacks on U.S. imports by buying food from Vietnam and other countries that offer it more time to pay.

The 2008 record figure for imports may also have been inflated by hoarding, as the island tried to stockpile food, believing that commodities prices that were then on the rise would continue to spike. Instead, they fell and having extra stocks was no longer so important.

The U.S. House Agriculture Committee voted June 30 to lift the ban on American travel to Cuba and make it easier to sell agricultural exports to the island.

While the bill has made headlines because of the travel component, it is backed by farm-state members of Congress hungry for a larger slice of the Cuban market. Unclear is when it will be considered by the full House.

Kavulich said supporters of the measure will use the drop in Cuban imports as evidence U.S. policy needs to be changed to keep from losing Cuban business to foreign competitors offering food exports. Opponents, meanwhile, will say American food sales to Cuba are no longer so potentially profitable.

But, for him, the issue is simply that Cuba is short on funds.

“Why are they buying less? I haven’t read one Cuban official saying it’s because of U.S. law and policy,” Kavulich said. “They say they don’t have the money.”