High-tech Cuba

When we landed at the José Martí airport in Havana, Cuba, signs of the revolution were everywhere. "Anti-imperialismus," said one; another, "Solidaridad." Billboards trumpeting la revolución and government-approved graffiti ("Fidel!" "Che Comandante Amigo!" "Rebeldes!") lined the freeways, filled the crumbling walls of Havana with color, and took up all of 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 anticorporate slogans and the revolutionary history behind them.

I went to Cuba with several other MIT students to learn more about the country's 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 have such a rich scientific community, I also had personal reasons for going 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 Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook 2002, the literacy rate hovers around 95 percent. In the mid 1970s, Castro began a series of programs to beef up the country's scientific and science-policy institutions. At the urging of advisors, in 1992 the government created the Scientific Pole, a coalition of 10 biotechnology centers that collaborate on everything from molecular immunology to high-tech agriculture. Manuel Raisas, a representative of the coalition's Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, ruefully pointed out that the United States has granted 24 biotech patents to Cuba -- in accordance with international intellectual-property 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 to 300 U.S. babies die of meningitis every year.

Today, Cuba (population 11 million) boasts 67,128 doctors and 12,000 scientists. The country has 2.3 million university students. Almost 2 percent of Cuba's gross national product goes to science, despite the fact that its economy shrank nearly 40 percent during the 1990s "crisis period" after the Soviet collapse. 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.

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, and 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 produce like lettuce, chiles, yuca, and bananas.

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 Galeano, 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 yuca 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 she had to bribe a doctor $5 -- a month's salary -- to get an abortion. And her complaint wasn't the only one we heard. There is a strong dissident voice in Cuba, which would probably surprise many Americans. Perhaps this is the result of a revolution focused on education.

To be continued ...

Annalee Newitz ( viva@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who will tell you more about Cuba next week. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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