Cubans love PowerPoint. I'm serious. Everywhere we went in Cuba, on visits to science ministries, national parks, and hospitals, my colleagues and I were treated to PowerPoint presentations. Most people were running Windows XP, though at the University of Havana the operating system of choice in the computer labs seems to be Win 2000 Professional. Since Cuban geeks are famous for adding cool new functions to already-existing technology -- and given the country's socialist economy -- I was surprised there was nary a free GNU/Linux operating system in sight. When I asked a local about this odd situation, he grinned and said, "All our software is free!" Uh-huh. Did I mention yet that I loved Cuba?
Now all we need is for a fleet of free-software geeks to get their asses over there and hook Fidel Castro up with some nice GNU/Linux boxes, tons of free crypto, and a whole mess of 802.11b networks. I nominate Richard Stallman of GNU.org to lead the Cuban geek revolution. The country already has a healthy disrespect for Bill Gates and incredibly delicious, strong coffee. It shouldn't be too hard to train up some kernel hackers and network geniuses.
Two weeks ago I visited Cuba with a group of MIT students to get beyond the U.S. hype and see the legendary communist country for myself. We went mostly to find out more about Cuba's highly developed health care system and biotech industry. But we learned about more than genes and cells.
For one thing, Cuba isn't quite the repressive, free speech-crushing environment the U.S. government would have us believe it is. Although it's true the local media are limited in terms of the issues they cover, some of those limitations aren't the ones you'd expect. According to openly dissident Havana journalist Recardo Gonzales, editor of an uncensored magazine called De Cuba, one of the big issues the mainstream Cuban media ignore is racism. Hmm, why does that sound familiar? Perhaps because racism is an issue the U.S. media routinely refuse to cover as well.
Nearly all of the officials who spoke to us emphasized how much they wished the United States would lift the embargo. Gisela Alonso, president of the Institute of the Environment, stressed that Cuban scientists, doctors, and engineers want to work collaboratively with their counterparts in the States. Sergio Jorge Pastrana of the National Academy of Sciences said, "We have been harassed by the U.S. for 40 years because of our ideology." After speaking with Cuban scientists and visiting with excited graduate students who showed off a mass spectrometer in their proteomics lab, I couldn't help agreeing with Pastrana. The embargo is all about ideology, and ideology should not control science.
The main crime these Cuban scientists have committed, according to the U.S. government, is believing in a different kind of economic system than most people in the United States do. Cubans are socialists, and few U.S. citizens have ever bothered to wonder what that means to actually-existing people. Dr. Luis Martinez, director general of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotech, put it like this: Cuban scientists work for "spiritual revenue" rather than the capitalist profit motive. Quoting Karl Marx, he said, "Freedom is liberation from the realm of necessity." Ideally, Cubans labor to meet their fellow citizens' basic needs, liberating them as much as possible from disease, hunger, and other problems. The Cuban scientific system works, according to Martinez, because "scientists want to contribute to the Cuban project. They feel solidarity [with normal citizens]." In the United States, most people believe capitalism's financial-rewards system is the best way to attack scientific problems, because it offers researchers an incentive to get their work done. Rather than appealing to group solidarity, capitalism appeals to individual aspirations.
But you know what? None of this should matter. Science is one of those areas in which people should be able to put aside their ideological beliefs and get down to doing the important work of saving lives, fixing our damaged ecosystems, and bringing cheap, fast communications technology to people who need it. Furthermore, U.S. citizens could stand to learn a thing or two from Cuban scientists -- and Cuban society in general. Working for money in science isn't always a good idea: Witness the pharmaceutical industry, in which profit often comes before public health. And witness the U.S. economic system, which allows rich people to live in mansions while poor people starve on the streets. I didn't see a single homeless person in Havana. Do you know why? Housing is free. After the revolution, Castro reallocated private property so that everyone had a roof over his or her head. In Havana, luxury mansions formerly owned by the wealthy have been divided into fairly spacious apartments for regular working-class people. School is free; medical care is free; utilities are provided at a very minimal flat rate. Cubans enjoy far more economic equality than people in the United States ever have.
Sure, there are problems in Cuba, but there are problems in the United States, too. The two countries have a lot to learn from each other. In the name of scientific progress, if nothing else, it's time to end the embargo.
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who reminds you that the cold war is one thing from the 1980s that hasn't come back in style. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.