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Viva High-Tech Cuba

By Annalee Newitz

WHEN WE LANDED at the Jose Marti airport in Havana, Cuba, signs of the revolution were everywhere. "Anti-imperialismus," said one; "Solidaridad," another. Billboards trumpeting la revolución and government-approved graffiti ("Fidel! Che Commandante Amigo! Rebeldes!") lined the freeways, filled the crumbling walls of Havana with color and took up all the public spaces where my eyes were accustomed to finding the Nike swoosh and Gap logos. "People love this country," I thought to myself, elated by the anti-corporate slogans and the revolutionary history behind them.

I came to Cuba with several other MIT students to learn more about its highly successful science and health programs. Despite its developing-nation status, Cuba has distinguished itself as a leader in vaccine research: the world's only meningitis vaccine came out of a Cuban lab. As much as I wanted to find out how a poor country could support such a rich scientific community, I had my own personal reasons for coming to Cuba. I wanted to see a country where people didn't automatically equate capitalism with freedom.

Fidel Castro, Cuba's leader since the 1959 revolution, has always placed a high value on education, especially in the sciences. Many of the officials we met with in Cuba referred to Castro's famous comment that "men of science" would lead the revolution. One of the first social programs the Castro regime instituted in the early 1960s was a literacy campaign, and even the country's adversaries acknowledge that Cubans are an unbelievably literate lot; according to the CIA's 2002 World Factbook, literacy rates hover around 95 percent.

In the mid-1970s, Castro began a series of programs to beef up the country's scientific institutions and advise the government on matters of science, technology and environmental policy. At the urging of science advisers, in 1992 the government created several biotechnology centers that form its Scientific Pole, a coalition of 10 institutions that work collaboratively on everything from molecular immunology to high-tech agriculture. Manuel Raisas, a representative of Cuba's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in the Scientific Pole, pointed out ruefully that the United States has granted 24 biotech patents to Cuba--due to international IP laws--but won't let Cuba sell any of its biotech in the United States. Even though British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline is marketing Cuba's meningitis vaccine, the United States refuses to import it. As a result, 200-300 U.S. babies die of meningitis every year.

Today, Cuba (population 11 million) boasts 67,128 doctors and 12,000 scientists. The country currently has 2.3 million university students. Almost 2 percent of Cuba's GNP goes to science, despite the fact that its economy shrank nearly 40 percent during the 1990s "crisis period" after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of this spending eases the pinch of a barely recovered economy, especially because Cuba considers environmental and agricultural issues a part of science. We visited a center outside Havana where city dwellers are taught "urban agriculture," a fancy name for planting little farms inside the city. Think of them as something like victory gardens.

A few years ago, Castro announced that city residents could use any empty plot of land--including rooftops, rubble-strewn areas where buildings have collapsed or street corners--to grow food. People are so hungry that these microfarms have thrived, and if you stroll through the streets of Havana you'll see dozens of them. Farmers set up stands on the street or go to vacant warehouses to sell their goods: if you have a few pesos to spare, you can buy everything from lettuce and yucca to bananas, oranges and onions.

With their urban agriculture, easy access to family doctors and massive educational programs, you'd think the Cubans' main problem would be their ongoing battle with poverty. In part because of the U.S. embargo, the shelves in Cuban stores are bare. On the Paseo, a stretch of tree-lined street in Centro Habana where Cubans shop and hang out, there's an old Woolworth's store complete with a long counter where you can get fried yucca and pizza. Although, of course, it's no longer a Woolworth's, the basic structure of the store--including the original sign outside--remains intact. Inside, there are rows and rows of glass and wood display cases that once held 1950s scarves, sunglasses, makeup and jewelry. Now they are filled with dust and the occasional pile of plastic-wrapped coconut tea cookies. The poverty here hurts. It made me realize, for the first time, that there is something comforting about living in a country where the stores are jammed with consumer goods.

But there are problems with Cuba's famous health care system, too. One woman told us that she had to bribe doctors $5--a month's salary--to get an abortion.

To be continued ...

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who will tell you more about Cuba next week.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the February 6-12, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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