Cuba: A nation of science and thought
State-directed scientific research, applied to socioeconomic development
Last Saturday, January 15, Cuba celebrated Cuban Science Day. Among the activities of the day, the Academy of Sciences of Cuba presented awards to research centers, companies, and institutions that have played an outstanding role in the confrontation with COVID-19, including BioCubaFarma, the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, the Center for Molecular Immunology, the Center of Neurosciences, the Finley Institute of Vaccines, the Henry Reeve Brigade, the Ministry of Public Health, and the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Havana.
It was on a January 15, but in 1960, that Fidel declared, “The future of our country has to be necessarily a future of men and women of science; it has to be a future of men and women of thought.” Fidel declared that the Cuban Revolution is seeding intelligence by ensuring that the people have full access to culture and to science. “Intelligence that will be incorporated into the life of the country, intelligence that will be incorporated into culture and science. This is the reason that we are converting fortresses into schools, so that in the future the country will be able to count on an accomplished group of men and women of thought, of research, and of science.”
Fidel spoke much, because his mission was pedagogical, and he spoke everywhere, tailoring his message to the particular audience. If there had been a society for the promotion of ridiculous causes, Fidel would have been there one day, no doubt calling upon the members to creatively search for ridiculous causes that happened to promote a more just world, offering a few modest examples. And so it was that on that historic day Fidel spoke to the Speleological Society of Cuba, where scientists from various fields were gathered, to exhort them to not leave the country, as they were free to do and as many did; but to remain in the country and contribute their capacities to the revolution, above all because the revolution needed men and women of science. He declared:
“Today, in the new country, the country that is truly free, scientists and researchers have full opportunity, so that all the things that you do are going to benefit directly the people. Today you have the satisfaction of knowing that there is a revolutionary government that seeks the truth, that needs scientists, that needs researchers, because this is the moment in which all intelligence has to be put to work. . .. Cuba needs men and women of thought, above all men and women of clear thought that put their knowledge on the side of good, on the side of justice, on the side of the country, because only thought can guide the peoples in the moments of great transformations.”
Over the following six decades, Cuba developed 208 scientific institutions, with ties to educational and productive institutions, so that Cuban scientific research is marked by interinstitutional collaboration and an orientation to the application of results, impacting the socioeconomic development of the country. Particularly important was research related to health, agricultural production, and animal husbandry. As a result, Cuba is rated with a high human development index by the United Nations Program for Development, much higher than underdeveloped countries in general and slightly higher than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that also is ranked in the high category.
Socioeconomic Development in Cuba
Commemorating six decades of the Revolution in power, the Latin American Council of the Social Sciences (CLACSO) published a collection of essays, Cuba en Revolución, edited by the Cuban intellectual Luis Suárez. Included in the collection was an article by José Luis Rodríguez, Minister of Economy and Planning of the Cuban Revolutionary Government from 1995 to 2009, who previously had been Director of the Center of Research on the International Economy of the University of Havana. Rodríguez writes to respond to those who insist on describing socialism as a failed regime that has been left behind by history, who view the social gains of the Cuban Revolution as non-existent or minimal and its political process as questionable, and who completely deny any Cuban gains with respect to the economy. Some of the critics attempt to show that Latin American countries have done much better by applying the recipes of capitalism and aligning themselves with the policy applied by the United States toward the region. In response, Rodríguez’s essay develops a comparison of the Cuban economy with the Latin American region.
Rodríguez reviews the three principal stages in the development of the Cuban revolutionary project. (1) In the period 1959 to 1989, Cuba passed through different periods in the promotion of industrial development, but in general, the period was characterized by state property as the base for development and by economic relations with the socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union. (2) With the disappearance of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe, Cuba beginning in 1990 entered the crisis known as the Special Period. In response to the crisis, Cuba reinserted itself into the Western-centered capitalist world-economy, making substantial changes in its trading partners. Adjusting to this insertion, it opened its economy to direct foreign investment, under highly regulated and controlled conditions; it established international tourism as its principal generator of income; and it expanded private property, cooperatives, and the role of the market. The policies were effective in facilitating recovery, but the impact was gradual; it was not until 2004 that the GDP recuperated its 1989 level. (3) During the post-1990 period of adjustment to the capitalist world-economy, national and international changes made necessary new policies to create conditions for further economic and social development, which were proposed by the Communist Party on the basis of an extensive popular consultation in 2011 and approved by the National Assembly of People’s Power in 2012. The changes included further expansion of conditions for self-employment, private enterprise, and foreign investment, under the direction of the state and with state-owned companies continuing to be the largest sector of the economy.
The political-economic context of Latin America, Rodríguez explains, was fundamentally different from that of Cuba. From the 1930s to the 1980s, the governments of the region implemented a strategy of state-directed import-substitution industrialization, constrained by the limits of the capitalist international division of labor. In the 1980s, in the context of the external debt crisis, the Latin American governments cooperated with international finance agencies in the implementation of the neoliberal model, involving a reduction of the role of the state and a reorientation toward the market. From 1999 to 2014, a group of countries, fueled by popular rejection of neoliberal policies, re-emphasized the role of the state. More recently, with the turn to the Right in the region in conjunction with the imperialist offensive of the United States, some countries have relaunched the neoliberal project. Since the publication of Rodriguez’s essay, it should be noted, the restauration project of the USA and the Latin American Right appears to have been beaten back, with successful resistance by Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia, and with recent electoral victories by progressive political movements in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Honduras.
Rodríguez notes that from 1959 to 1989 (before the Special Period in Cuba and the neoliberal model in Latin America), there was similarity in economic growth between Cuba and Latin America, with similar rates of growth in agriculture, and with Cuba showing stronger growth in services and weaker growth in industry. In the period 1989 to 2009 (when Cuba was in or recovering from the Special Period and Latin America was turning to neoliberalism), again the overall economic growth was similar, but with Cuba weaker with respect to GDP growth, expansion in agriculture/mining, and rates of investment. In the period 2009 to 2017 (when Cuba had recovered from the Special Period with its economically flexible socialist model, and when some countries in Latin America were turning to post-neoliberal state-directed development), both Cuba and Latin America had stronger rates of growth in GDP than previously, with Cuban continuing to show comparatively weaker growth in overall GDP, agriculture/mining, and rate of investment.
Rodriguez observes that socialism and capitalism have different interpretations of development. Cuban revolutionary thought, for example, consistently has seen economic development and social development as united, whereas bourgeois academics and analysts interpret development basically as economic growth, claiming that social development would be derived from economic growth. If we were to use a socialist perspective in comparing Cuba and Latin America, we would look at social indicators, like life expectancy; infant mortality rate; inhabitants per doctor; unemployment rate; illiteracy rate; poverty; state expenditures in education, health, social security, and social assistance; and the percentage of people covered by social security. Comparing Cuba and Latin America on the basis of such social indicators, socialist Cuba more clearly differentiates itself from Latin America. In 1958, Cuba ranked lower than the Latin American average in illiteracy rates, life expectancy, inhabitants per doctor, government expenditures as a percentage of GDP in health and social security, and unemployment rates; but by 2015-2017, Cuba was ahead of Latin America in all of these areas. Cuba in 1958 was ahead of Latin America with respect to infant mortality rates and poverty, but since then, Cuba has increased its advantage.
Rodríguez notes that comparative discussion of poverty with respect to Cuba is complicated by the fact that the Cuban population receives without cost, as it has since the triumph of the Revolution, services in education, health, and social assistance; and the Cuban state subsidizes basic foods, medicine, public transportation, electricity, telephone, and water. So with respect to Cuba, a poverty rate is not entirely applicable. Therefore, Rodríguez refers to “persons at risk” in Cuba, who are persons with insufficient income to cover all necessities, insufficient nutrition, deterioration of housing, or inadequate transportation. He estimates that 15% to 20% of the Cuban population is at risk, in contrast to the 30% poverty rate of Latin America.
Rodríguez also observes than any comparison of the levels of development of socialist and capitalist societies has to take into account the fundamental fact that the development of capitalism was historically based on the accumulation of capital through colonial and neocolonial domination by Europe and the United States, including the wars of conquest unleashed by the young U.S. republic against the original peoples of North America and Mexico. None of the socialist countries of the South initiated their projects on such a foundation, but rather, as victims of the global process of conquest, colonial dominations, and imperialism. Even China, once the most advanced of the world’s empires and civilizations, suffered from semi-colonial Western commercial penetration following the Opium War of 1839 to 1842, a penetration that continued until the triumph of China’s communist revolution in 1949.
In addition to utilizing appropriate concepts of analysis and taking into account the colonial and neocolonial history of Cuba, any reasonable economic assessment of Cuban socialism has to take into account the aggressive economic opposition of the United States to the Cuban revolutionary project. In nationalizing US-owned agricultural and industrial companies in Cuba, the Cuban Revolutionary Government offered compensation, to be financed by an increase in the Cuban-USA sugar trade, a proposal that the U.S. government did not desire to negotiate. In addition, the Revolutionary Government initially proposed the incorporation of the Cuban industrial bourgeoisie into the revolutionary project, but the national bourgeoise opted to flee the country and subordinate itself to the counterrevolutionary regime-change project under U.S. direction. The Cuban Revolution was able to survive by becoming a part of the socialist bloc; however, the intention of the Cuban Revolutionary Government during its first two years was to maintain its natural economic relation with the USA, but redefining the terms of trade; to develop mutually beneficial economic relations with Latin American and Caribbean nations; and to develop diverse economic and cultural relations with the rest of the world, including the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. This reframing of Cuban international economic relations was blocked by the USA, and there can be no reasonable doubt that it significantly limited the economic development of revolutionary Cuba.
The Cuban political-scientific struggle against COVID-19
The fruits of Cuban investment in science and health and its development of a more consensual political process of people’s democracy were evident in the Cuban response to the pandemic.
The Cuban Plan of Prevention and Containment of COVID-19 was approved by the Cuban Revolutionary Government on March 5, 2020, before the arrival of any COVID cases on the island. The plan had been formulated by a temporary work team composed of high government officials along with scientists and health specialists, a human resource that had been formed through six decades of commitment to the development of science and public health. The plan included a number of measures conditioned by the contagion rate: face masks, physical distancing, and handwashing at the entrances of public places and workplaces; the closing of restaurants and stores that sell non-essential goods; suspension of tourism and international travel; suspension of schools and universities; the placing of persons who had had contact with confirmed cases in isolation centers; the cancellation or postponement of events involving large concentrations of people; and the organization of medical students to conduct door-to-door inquiries. Civil defense organizations in the fifteen provinces were activated for the implementation of the plan.
The people were well informed concerning the numbers of cases and deaths, the adaptation of the measures in accordance with evolving conditions, and the rationale behind the measures. Dr. Francisco Durán, National Director of Epidemiology of the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, provided detailed televised sixty-minute reports each morning, and the daily television news program, La Mesa Redonda, was converted into space for scientists and public health officials to report to the people. There was nearly universal acceptance of the measures, although some people complied with a level of indiscipline, due to a low perception of risk.
In 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in Cuba was significantly lower than in the United States and many of the developed economies of Europe, although higher than in China and Vietnam. This tendency was also true for COVID-related deaths per 100,000 population.
My November 5, 2021, commentary discusses Cuba’s containment of COVID-19 in 2020.
Cuba had the virus under control in October 2020, having reduced the number of new cases to a low level, as defined by the standards recommended by the World Health Organization. As a result, the government decided to gradually reopen tourism and international travel. However, the reopening, combined with the arrival of the Delta variant, provoked a new peak, significantly higher than the two peaks of 2020, which reached its zenith in August 2021. However, because of the program of vaccination of the population, using vaccines developed by Cuban research centers, combined with the continued application of restrictive health measures such as masks and social distancing and a second suspension of international travel, the number of new cases declined rapidly from September through November 2021, again reaching a low level.
The vaccination of the people has been well organized, and its has proceeded from neighborhood to neighborhood with the support of the national organization of local neighborhood organizations, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. When necessary, local Party leaders have lent support to the vaccination campaign. As of January 15, 2022, 99.6% of the vaccinable population has received at least one dose, and 92.5% of the vaccinable popular have received the full package of three doses. The vaccinable population excludes infants under two years of age and persons who ought not be vaccinated for health reasons. The distribution of a booster is now in process; 38% of the vaccinable population have received the booster to date.
From the beginning, Cuba had placed its hopes for the control of COVID-19 in drawing upon its own advanced scientific and health resources to develop and distribute vaccines to the entire population. Initially, Cuban research scientists had been oriented to developing a Cuban vaccine quickly, but they were thinking in terms of years, until they were visited by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who called upon them to develop a vaccine with a year. The Cuban President argued that, in the current geopolitical environment, it would be necessary for Cuba to have its own vaccine to protect its sovereignty. Persuaded by the President that the sovereignty of the nation was at stake, the scientists reevaluated their assumptions and conceptualizations, and arrived to a strategy of stimulating the immune system, different from the conventional strategy of simulating the contagion. Cuba had successfully used the stimulation of the immune system strategy in its development of previous vaccines. Because of the connection of the Cuban vaccines to Cuban sovereignty, the Cuban vaccines have patriotic names.
Cuba has developed five vaccines, three by the Finley Institute of Vaccines and two by the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology. The vaccines have been shown to be among the most effective in the world, and Cuba is preparing to export them. The Biotechnological Complex of the Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in the Special Zone of Development in Mariel (CIGB Mariel) recently has been established for the purpose of increasing the capacity of the Cuban state company BioCubaFarma to manufacture and export vaccines and new medicines for the treatment of principal health problems, including cancer; diabetes; autoimmune, infectious, and cerebrovascular diseases; and COVID-19. CIGB Mariel and BioCubaFarm are financed 100% by the Cuban government.
My November 9, 2021, commentary reviewed the Cuban campaign against COVID-19 during 2021.
Having attained control of the virus for a second time, Cuba initiated a gradual reopening of international travel on November 15, 2021. This led to an increase in imported COVID cases in the month of December, such that the government announced more strict sanitary measures for international travelers, which went into effect on January 5. In the first two weeks of 2022, there has been a significant increase in COVID-19 cases. At the January 11 meeting of scientists and experts, chaired by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health (the President was attending the presidential inauguration in Nicaragua), the Director of the Pedro Kourí Institute for Tropical Medicine reported that the Omicron variant is beginning to become prevalent in the country, although this is still a preliminary finding. The Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics of the University of Havana, who is known for generating predictions with mathematical models, projected that the number of cases will increase rapidly in January and February, followed by an abrupt descent in the middle of March. The Vice-President of the Cuban Society of Epidemiology confirmed the greater transmissibility of the Omicron variant, but also noted that there will not be a proportionate increase in serious cases and deaths, due to the impact of the vaccination of the entire population. There was a consensus at the meeting that there must be individual and collective responsibility in complying with the health measures, especially facemasks, physical distancing, and frequent handwashing.
You will not find in Cuba speculation by news commentators or alternative theories published by individual scientists. Rather, Cuban researchers continually collaborate in ongoing investigations, and their reports are discussed among themselves and in the regular meetings of the COVID-19 team of government officials and scientists. The COVID team arrives to a consensus with respect to analysis of the situation and the appropriate measures, which is announced and explained to the people. This makes possible united action on the basis of a consensual understanding among the people. This is the Cuban revolutionary way.
Cuba is poised to become a world power in science and health, based on the foundation of Fidel’s vision to create a nation of men and women of science and thought. The development of a sovereign pharmaceutical industry capable of forging an expansion of mutually beneficial trade relations with the nations of the world is a consequence of decades of giving priority to science and education.
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