Science and Socialism in Cuba

A Matrix Podcast interview with Clare Ibarra and Naomi Schoenfeld

Clare Ibarra and Naomi Shoenfeld

In this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek interviews Clare Ibarra, a PhD candidate in history, and Naomi Schoenfeld, a public health nurse practitioner and recent PhD from the joint UC San Francisco/UC Berkeley medical anthropology program. Both Ibarra and Schoenfeld study the history and present of socialist science and medicine in Cuba.

Ibarra’s dissertation examines scientific exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Her research seeks to answer how socialist ideology affected each country’s approach to development, resource extraction, and decolonization.

Schoenfeld’s areas of expertise include medical anthropology, STS, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, postsocialism, social medicine, and critical public health. She has conducted ethnographic research examining (post)socialist technoscientific formations through Cuban cancer vaccines. Her new research examines a novel program providing thousands of rooms in tourist hotels to persons experiencing homelessness during the COVID19 pandemic. (See her recent paper, Vivir En Cronicidad: Terminal Living through Cuban Cancer Vaccines, here).

On the podcast, Sizek, Ibarra and Schoenfeld discuss the history of science and medicine in Cuba and its relationship to the socialist project, as well as how Cuba has developed vaccines during the current pandemic.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix in collaboration with the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Listen to other episodes here. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. Excerpts from the interview are included below.

Q: What makes Cuban science socialist science?

Clare Ibarra: From my research of the 1950s, as Cuban scientists are beginning to make contact with Soviet scientists, there’s a lot of Soviet literature that reaches them, where the Soviets are actually making this distinction between socialist science and capitalist science. Capitalist science is science that has the privilege of engaging in projects that are more lofty and don’t necessarily have that social impact. By contrast, both the Soviet Union — and definitely Cuban scientists after the revolution after 1959 — their method is to approach every single project from the standpoint of, how is this going to serve society? And if they can’t prove that, it makes their projects ineligible for support. They really emphasize this social impact, more so than in the US or in the West.

Naomi Schoenfeld: In my research, I argue that Cuban science is socialist science for a variety of reasons, but fundamentally, it is completely sponsored and controlled by the state. That has a couple different sides. Scholar Loren Graham has said that continuous state funding explains why the Soviet Union could continue to produce so many Nobel Prize-winning scientists, even while many were in labor camps.

This turned out to be really important in my research. I did ethnographic research with a variety of different interlocutors, but including people who are scientists who are clinical and bed scientists. This notion of having continuous research funding from the state, where you’re not on a grant cycle. As we academics know, chasing money, or chasing the next project, is always a challenge. There’s continual state funding. It’s a closed system, where your ultimate goal is not to develop a patent or a novel agent to be able to sell to a company or make profit. There’s fundamental state support.

But because the Communist Party ultimately controls everything that happens, the decisions are ultimately going to go to the Party, at least in the biological sciences, the biotech sector. And the leaders of that research are very well connected. They’re familial. They are the children and the grandchildren of the Revolutionary generation, and so they’re very well connected to the Party.

Q: One theme that seems to make science socialist is its relationship to intellectual property. How did that come up in your research?

Schoenfeld: Cuba is coming up with all sorts of patented biotech innovations. And ultimately, what I argue is really special and interesting about Cuban science — and what is most radically distinct from what happens in Europe in the US and North America and some parts of Asia — is that the fundamental science is not driven by the idea that somebody might make money off of something, or that something has to make money. Ultimately, they do need to try to figure out how to make some money to go back into the state to fund more research, and to fund the healthcare system. And there are cynics and critics who will say, well, where is this money actually going? Look at our deteriorating hospitals, and at how some people are living. But nevertheless, the idea of a patent doesn’t have that same notion at, say, GlaxoSmithKline, which is going to make huge profits. It’s really quite different, and the fact that they’ve been able to do so much innovation really flies in the face of the notion that capitalism is necessary for creativity and innovation.

Ibarra: From the historical perspective, it’s interesting that you say there’s a clear vision of property. Because in my research, especially in the late 60s and 70s, the greatest issue where the Soviets and Cubans butt heads is over who has the right to access these natural resources, and use them. The ownership is contested, mainly because in this period, there’s such a strong adherence to socialist internationalism and socialist brotherhood, where all socialist republics, including Cuba, are supposed to exchange to produce one socialist market. Cuban scientists really push against this, because they understand that their environment, their natural resources, are their own, and they have to protect it. That comes from a legacy of especially the US using and abusing the natural resources that are there, and even to increase their status within their own scientific communities. That is also true of the Soviet scientists who go to Cuba. They know that, because they’re exploring this new area, it’s going to give them greater standing once they go back home.

Q: One of the interesting points of tension you’re highlighting is the question of whether natural resources are owned by the state of Cuba or by an international group of socialized nations. What were these natural resources, and how were they involved in scientific research?

Ibarra: It’s both minerals in geology, and agriculture. When it comes to agriculture, there was great interest from the Soviets in understanding a tropical environment. There was also great interest from the German Democratic Republic. And they were both guilty of using or creating technology that they would test in Cuba to see if it would withstand the climate, to be able to export it to other places in the Global South.

In geology, there is a lot of nickel laterite throughout the eastern portion of Cuba. They needed that to be able to extract things that would make it easier for Cubans to convert Soviet crude oil, which is one of the biggest exports from the Soviet Union, into usable oil. The Cubans justified this because oil is necessary for energy, and part of the program of the revolution is to provide energy to even the most rural places, and creating more equitable access to energy. At the same time, the Soviets are interested in having access to this nickel because their supplies have been diminishing, and they also need the iron ore to convert their own oil.

Q: You note that Cuba was localizing Soviet technologies, especially in the instance of tropical medicine. Tell us more about the emergence of tropical medicine as a category.

Ibarra: One of the martyrs of Cuban science is Carlos Finlay. He developed the idea that yellow fever was transmitted through a vector. He was able to do this research along with a few US scientists, most prominently Walter Reed, and after this, the idea starts circulating, Walter Reed became the main scientist associated with the work that Carlos Finlay had done.

This story became one of the greatest narratives that the Cuban Revolutionary government used to remind the Cuban people that, since the early 1900s, the US had been coming into our country, and not only using our natural resources to their benefit, but even stealing the intellectual property created by Cuban scientists.

Schoenfeld: Tropical medicine goes beyond Cuba. The countries that were tropical zone countries became labs for white scientists to come and learn, then take that knowledge away. The Finlay-Reed story is classic. Finlay was the grandfather of Cuban science and important in staking a claim to an intellectual history that is independent from the Soviet Union, which is very important. They will acknowledge how much training they got from the Soviet Union, but they really wanted to make it evident that there was a precursor, a very strong tradition of research that predates the revolution.

As part of my research, I looked at the history of vaccinations and why vaccines are so important to Cuba. The centerpiece of my research was the Cuban cancer vaccine. It has everything to do with Carlos Finlay and with tropical medicine, because this pioneering research and the strengths that Cuba has built on all come from infectious disease.

Infectious disease completely dominated the landscape of life and death for people in tropical countries, and Cuba is no exception. The major investment in science and medicine after the revolution really transformed the health statistics in Cuba, as they were able to bring the levels of illness and death down on par to developing countries. What they were able to achieve with biotech in the late 70s and early 80s, they were building on everything that they knew from infectious diseases. The vaccines were explained to me as antigen-antibody “keys and locks.” This conceptualization has helped them continue to think of novel ways to use vaccines, including the therapeutic cancer vaccine that I’ve studied.


Listen to the full podcast above, or on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.



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