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Michael Balter’s comment about “the Castro brothers’ last excuse to  
hold monopoly power” exemplifies a wrongheadedness with regard to the  
Cuban Revolution that continues to sadden me. If “progressives” can’t  
recognize progress in human affairs, what hope is there for advancing  
the public discourse in a genuinely progressive direction?

	I will take this opportunity to announce that a Cuban edition of my  
book A People’s History of Science is scheduled to be introduced at  
next February’s Havana International Book Fair. With that as a lead- 
in, permit me to comment on how I believe the Cuban Revolution has  
served to advance the cause of “people’s science.”

	The Cuban Revolution, like its predecessors in Russia and China,  
parlayed the advantages of centralized economic planning into  
unparalleled scientific and technological advances. The USSR and  
China, two of the world’s largest countries, had sought to build  
powerful, autonomous economies that could go head-to-head in  
competition with the world’s leading capitalist nations.

	But Cuba, a small island with a population of only about ten million  
people, wisely chose not to channel its scientific endeavors into a  
quixotic effort to compete directly with the United States in the  
field of military technology. Instead, Cuba relied on diplomatic and  
political means for its national security—that is, on its alliance  
with the Soviet Union and on the moral authority its revolution had  
gained throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. That  
allowed its science establishment to direct its attention in other,  
less military-oriented, directions.

	The USSR and China had aimed their science programs toward  
facilitating the growth of basic heavy industry. The Cubans, by  
contrast, oriented their science program toward the solution of social  
problems. Universal healthcare was assigned high priority, giving  
impetus to the development of the medical sciences. A harsh economic  
embargo imposed by the United States compelled the Cubans to find ways  
to produce their own medicines. They met the challenge and the upshot  
was that Cuba, despite its “developing world” economic status, now  
stands at the forefront of international biochemical and  
pharmacological research.

	In the 1980s a worldwide “biotechnological revolution” occurred, and  
Cuban research institutions took a leading role in it. Among the most  
noteworthy products of Cuban bioscience are vaccines for treating  
meningitis and hepatitis B, the popular cholesterol-reducer PPG (which  
is derived from sugarcane), monoclonal antibodies used to combat the  
rejection of transplanted organs, recombinant interferon products for  
use against viral infections, epidermal growth factor to promote  
tissue healing in burn victims, and recombinant streptokinase for  
treating heart attacks.

	The Cuban biotech institutes focus their attention on deadly diseases  
that Big Pharma tends to ignore because they mainly afflict poor  
people in the developing world. An important part of their mission is  
the creation of low-cost alternative drugs. In 2003 Cuban researchers  
announced the creation of the world’s first human vaccine containing a  
synthetic antigen. It was a vaccine for treating Hib (Haemophilus  
influenzae type b), a bacterial disease that causes meningitis and  
pneumonia in young children and kills more than 500,000 throughout the  
world every year. An effective vaccine against Hib already existed and  
had proven successful in industrialized nations, but its high cost  
sharply limited its availability in the less affluent parts of the  
world. The synthetic vaccine is significantly cheaper.

	The Cuban example offers a particularly clear case study of how a  
revolution can have a liberating effect on the development of science.  
The Cuban revolution removed the greatest of all obstacles to  
scientific advance by freeing the island from economic subordination  
to the industrialized world. The wealthier countries’ ability to  
manufacture products at relatively low cost allows them to flood the  
markets of the nonindustrialized countries with cheaply produced  
machine-made goods, effectively preventing the latter from  
industrializing. The only way out of this dilemma for the poorer  
countries is to remove themselves from the worldwide economic system  
based on market exchange, where the rules are entirely stacked against  
them. The history of the twentieth century, however, suggests that any  
countries wanting to opt out of the system have had to fight their way  
out. The Cuban revolution was therefore a necessary precondition of  
the creation and flowering of Cuban science and its biotechnology  
industry.

	The scientific achievements of the Cuban revolution testify that  
important, high-level scientific work can be performed without being  
driven by the profit motive. They also show that centralized planning  
does not necessarily have to follow the ultrabureaucratized model  
offered by the Soviet Union and China, wherein science primarily  
serves the interests of strengthening the state and only secondarily  
concerns itself with the needs of the people. Cuba’s accomplishments  
are all the more impressive for having been the product of a country  
with a relatively small economic base, and with the additional  
handicap of an economic embargo imposed by a powerful and hostile  
neighboring country.

	The Cuban revolution has come closest to realizing the noble goal of  
a fully human-oriented science. Although Cuba’s small size limits its  
usefulness as a basis for universal conclusions, its accomplishments  
in the medical sciences certainly provide reason to believe that  
science on a world scale could be redirected from its present course  
as a facilitator of blind economic growth (which primarily serves the  
interests of small ruling groups that control their countries’  
economies) and instead be devoted to improving the wellbeing of entire  
populations.