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.