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. A transcript is included below.



Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. Today we’re recording at the Ethnic Studies Changemaker studio with our two guests, Clare Ibarra and Naomi Schoenfeld. Clare is a PhD candidate in history whose research focuses on the scientific exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Naomi is a recent PhD from the UCSF-UC Berkeley Joint Medical Anthropology program, whose research examines the history and present of the Cuban biotechnology sector, and more specifically, the lung cancer vaccine.

So as we get started, I just wanted to start out by trying to understand a common part of both of your research, which is this question of like, what makes Cuban science socialist science?

Clare Ibarra: So 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.

And capitalist science is a science that has the privilege of engaging in projects that are a little 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. And they really take this social impact more so than science, say, in the US or in the West.

Naomi Schoenfeld: I would add on to what Clare said, which I think is great and totally right. I think there’s a few different ways of looking at it, but 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, which has a couple different sides to that.

One scholar of Soviet socialist science that I have read a lot of is that Loren Graham, who you are probably familiar with his work, and one of the things he mentioned about why the Soviet Union could continue to produce so many Nobel Prize winning scientists, even while they were in labor camps, was the notion of continuous state funding.

And this is something that 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 bench scientists. And this notion of having continuous research funding from the state where you’re not on a grant cycle, as we academics know, chasing money, chasing the next project is always a challenge.

So there is continual state funding. It’s a closed system where you’re not– your ultimate goal is not to develop a patent– develop a novel agent to be able to sell it to a company to be able to make profit. So that’s of this fundamental state support. But as Clare said, because the Communist party ultimately controls everything that happens, the decisions are ultimately going to go to the party.

So at least the sector I know is really the biological sciences, the biotech sector, and the leaders of that research are very, very well connected. I mean, their familial– they are the children and the grandchildren of the revolutionary generation, and so they’re very well connected to the party.

Julia Sizek: So one of the really interesting themes that I was just picking up on in there is that part of what makes science socialist is this relationship to property and to intellectual property. So in your research, how did that come up?

Schoenfeld: Well, I think that– so Cuba is coming up with all sorts of patented biotech innovations. And ultimately, what I argue is really special and interesting about Cuban science is that– and what I think is radically distinct from what happens in Europe and the US and North America and some parts of Asia is that there’s not– 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, there’s a feedback where they do need to try to figure out how to make some money to go back into the state to continue to fund more research, to fund the health care system. I mean, there are certainly cynics and critics who will say, well, where is this money actually going? And look at our deteriorating hospitals and look at how some people are living.

But nevertheless, the idea of a patent doesn’t have that same notion that GlaxoSmithKline control is going to make huge profits. So it’s really quite different. And I think it flies– And the fact that they’ve been able to do so much innovation to me really flies in the face of the notion that capitalism is necessary for creativity, and for innovation.

Ibarra: And from the historical perspective, there’s actually– it’s interesting that you say that there’s a clearer vision of property. Because in my research, especially in the late ’60s and ’70s, the greatest thing where the Soviets and Cubans butt heads is over who has the right to access these natural resources and use them.

And so 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.

And Cuban scientists really pushed against this because they do understand that their environment, their natural resources are their own and they have to protect it. And 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.

And that is also true of the Soviet scientists who go to Cuba. They know that because they’re exploring this new area, that it’s going to give them greater standing once they go back home.

Sizek: Just to pick up on that, I think one of the interesting points of tension that you’re highlighting is how these natural resources are– there’s this question of whether they are owned by the state of Cuba or by the international group of socialists. So what were these natural resources more specifically, and how were they involved in scientific research?

Ibarra: So the greatest case of this is it’s both minerals in geology and agriculture. So 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.

So the other area is with geology, where there is a lot of nickel laterite throughout the eastern portion of Cuba. And what they needed that for was 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, convert that into actual usable oil, which, of course, they make that into a story of– the Cubans justify this as, well, that oil is necessary for energy, and part of our program of the revolution is to provide energy to even the most rural places. So being able to create this more equitable access to energy.

But at the same time, the Soviets are interested in having access to this nickel because their supplies have been diminishing and they themselves also need the iron ore to be able to convert their own oil.

Sizek: And just to transition back, I think one of the points that you brought up is how Cuba is trying to deal with this question of localizing Soviet technologies, especially in the instance of tropical medicine, which is a really big part of Cuban history and Cuba’s story. Can you tell us a little bit about the emergence of tropical medicine as a category?

Ibarra: Yes. So the greatest example and one of the martyrs of Cuban science is Carlos Finlay. He was the one who developed the idea that yellow fever was transmitted through a vector. And he was able to do this research along with a few US scientists, most prominently Walter Reed. And after this development starts circulating, Walter Reed becomes the main scientist that is associated with the work that Carlos Finlay had done.

And so this story actually becomes one of the greatest narratives that the Cuban revolutionary government used to remind the Cuban people that since the early 1900s, the US has been coming to our country and not only using our natural resources to their benefit, but even stealing the intellectual property that is created by Cuban scientists. So with the rest of tropical medicine, it does begin there. And I’m not sure that I have so much more to say about it.

Sizek: I was wondering, Naomi, maybe you can add to tell us a little bit about how people talk about tropical medicine today.

Schoenfeld: I mean, well, tropical medicine is sort of huge and definitely way beyond Cuba and an area of colonial medicine that’s pretty intense, right? Where these countries that are tropical zone countries become labs for White scientists to come and learn and then take that knowledge away. So I think the Finlay and Reed story is really classic.

Finlay is a super important. Just as Clare said, the grandfather of Cuban science and a really important in staking a claim to this intellectual history that is independent from the Soviet Union, which is very important.

And that’s they really of course, will acknowledge how much training that they got from the Soviet Union, but they really want to make it evident that there’s a precursor, there’s a very strong tradition of research that definitely predates– that predates the revolution, that predates the Soviet Union.

So there’s a lot that can be said about tropical medicine. But I will say, one of the things that I looked at in my research was I really looked at the history of vaccinations and why vaccines are so important to Cuba. The centerpiece of my research was on this Cuban cancer vaccine. And the fact that it was a vaccine is one of the things that I argue is very socialist about that biotechnology.

And it has everything to do with Carlos Finlay and everything to do with tropical medicine, because this pioneering research and the strengths that Cuba has built on all come from infectious disease. So infectious disease completely dominated the landscape of life and death for people all over any tropical country, but Cuba is no exception.

And this a major, major– investing so heavily in science and medicine after the revolution really transformed the health statistics of Cuba where they were able to really bring the levels of illness and death down on par to developing countries and take infectious diseases from one of the top killers to now it’s heart attacks. It’s the same, it’s diabetes. It’s what we have here in the US.

So all the biotech– I mean, I could go on and on here, but I’ll try to tame it back. But basically 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.

So the vaccine, the way they think about vaccines as it was explained to me is keys and locks, antigen, antibody keys and locks. And so this conceptualization has helped them continue to think of novel ways to use vaccines, including the CIMAvax, the therapeutic cancer vaccine that I studied.

Sizek: So can you just tell us a little bit more about this therapeutic cancer vaccine? Because we typically don’t think about cancer as being something that can be solved or treated through a vaccine.

Schoenfeld: So I’ll link it directly to this notion of infectious disease. So there was an oncologist in 1980 named, I think, Randolph Clark, who came from Texas, and he just happened to come to– he came to Cuba like people come to Cuba randomly, and he somehow got Fidel Castro’s ear and he was like, here is what’s exciting right now. What’s exciting is we’re going to cure cancer.

And there’s this Finnish scientist, Kari Cantell, who has figured out a way to purify and produce human interferon and interferon is this magic drug, and it’s going to do everything. So at this moment, and Simon Reid-Henry details this really extensively in his book The Cuban Cure, which I definitely recommend.

So they take this small group of scientists, bring them to Finland, and they learn how to produce interferon. I think they have 10 days in Finland and then they go back to Cuba. And there, he retrofits a gorgeous old house and it becomes the first institute, the first biotech institute there.

And interferon remains a very, very important drug. The first biotech agent or whatever that was produced in Cuba. And for example, you know, it was used as recently as January 2020 when the cases of COVID were exploding in China, they exported a bunch of Cuban interferon as an experimental treatment.

This is one of the hallmarks of how Cuban science works in the closed cycle system where the state controls bench research, clinical research, marketing, is you can test it on your population, which might sound sinister, but when you consider the state also has the responsibility of caring for the population, that has a different– it’s different than what, for example, Adriana Petryna shows where you look at the way the pharmaceutical companies will test drugs in areas with no health care.

So this is very different. You’re testing a drug, but the government still has to care for these people. So if you’re causing a bunch of harm, that’s going to look really bad. There’s a direct line from interferon to CIMAvax, so that’s why I’m kind of spending a minute on interferon.

So the scientists who figured out that interferon is part of the immune system. The very first time that they used it, it was shortly after they began producing it. There was an outbreak, I think it was a malaria outbreak. And this is one of those moments where I might have to go back and correct myself. But let’s just say that there was a big infectious disease outbreak, and they tested human interferon for the first time.

And it seemed to work. It could also be because there was a wane of infectious disease at that moment. But that’s how it worked. And so they began to really focus on the immune system. They wanted to focus on cancer.

We’re moving into the ’90s now. And in the ’90s, there was this boom worldwide in cancer immunology. And there was a lot of hope that we were going to figure out how to use our immune system to fight cancer. So this is how they began this line of research of trying to figure out how to marshal our immune system to fight cancer.

They were doing the same thing in the US, but the results didn’t look good. And as I mentioned the kinds of funding cycles that we have here, if your preliminary results don’t look good, it gets shut down. But because Cuban funding looks really different with these very, very long– one of the things I talk about in my research is the different time horizons that you have in socialist science versus market democratic science, which is what I consider our science to be here in the US.

And because you have the long time horizons, certain things are possible that wouldn’t be possible here. So you can continue a line of research that might initially not look promising, and that’s CIMAvax. So CIMAvax is a vaccine that– basically it creates antibodies to epidermal growth factor.

We all have epidermal growth factor in our bodies. But when you have lung cancer, sometimes the tumors grow in response to epidermal growth factor. So if you can induce antibodies to epidermal growth factor, you can slow down the growth of the tumor. And that’s how it’s used for people who have lung cancer, is it’s a therapeutic vaccine to keep it in check, keep the cancer in check. It does not cure you.

However, Mary Reed, an epidemiologist from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, brilliant woman, she had the idea to try to use CIMAvax as a preventative vaccine. And they’re running this trial now through Roswell Park for people who are at high risk of precancerous lesions. Long winded answer.

Sizek: Wow, that is so fascinating. I guess I have a question for Clare based on what you said, which is that I’m curious how this plays into the historical story of science in Cuba if you think that the development of CIMAvax as this long term project that wouldn’t be possible in the US, if that makes sense to you.

And then also, I guess thinking about the way that we think about scientific development as coming from the US or from these major powers and then going to places like Cuba rather than the other way around. I was wondering if you could just comment on how that fits in historically, because I think this is a major and really interesting scientific development.

Ibarra: I’m so glad that you mentioned that, because especially in the first decade of the revolution from 1959, honestly into 1970, ’71, ’72, so the long decade, it’s quite the opposite where there is such a desire and honestly, urgency to be using the sciences to create the necessary development to sustain the economy and therefore, sustain the revolution.

And so revolutionary time is very short, it’s very fast, and it’s quite in contrast to this long term project. And that definitely has an effect on some of the biggest projects that are funded and one of the first projects that are funded.

So the Cuban National Atlas, though, it becomes a staple of the ongoing research of the Academia de Ciencias or the Academy of Sciences, it really was envisioned as like, let’s just try it out. I mean, we have a lot of Soviet geographers and geologists that are present. Why don’t we update the 1954 National Atlas? Which was infamous because they were collaborating again with the US, and the US geographers took all of their data with them as they saw that the revolution was imminent.

But again, even the first National Atlas, they saw this as it’s an experiment, we have to move quickly with it and we’ll deal with the collateral damages afterwards. And that’s also very reminiscent of Fidel’s first five-year plan, which ends with the zafra de los diez millones, which is the 10-million ton harvest, which is the quintessential model of revolutionary time, where it is a scientific project in that they are doing experiments to be able to prevent plagues, which was something that was rampant in that first decade to develop pesticides, to increase the resistance of the new Soviet tractors that are there, all for the end result of greater economic development.

And specifically through this five-year program, to give Cuba some leeway from being so dependent upon Soviet aid. But one of the downfalls to this five-year plan is that Fidel really pushed for things to happen quickly.

And with that, came a lot of mistakes, like not cutting the cane at the perfect height, like you have to get down very low for it to retain the moisture, which is so essential before you take it to an engenho and create it into sugar. Or they left it in warehouses where it dried out, or trucks would break down and never make it to the warehouse.

So in terms of longer projects, yeah, it was technically very difficult for them, but also the rhetoric that was coming from top down, it prevented greater investment in longer term projects. And I would say that lasted until– honestly, the nuclear energy program is the longest term scientific project that the Cuban government invested in at least. It dates to 1968.

So usually we associate Juragua, the main nuclear energy plant, with the late 1970s, the early 1980s. But really, the project was being imagined and Cuba was seeking different suitors, like they went to CERN that was based in France, and then they were looking at the Soviet Union. Before the revolution, they were seeking, and in plans, to receive a nuclear reactor from the US even.

And because of the difficulties of gaining the resources, building up even the educational infrastructure to have proper experts to work at this plant, it did really take a long time, but there was much resistance to that idea from some of the main scientists, and especially Antonio Nunez Jiménez, who was the driver of Cuban science and the president of the Academy of Sciences during that time.

Sizek: So to transition over, because I think there’s this really interesting tension between revolutionary time as being very, very fast versus this present, I think, assumed stability of the Cuban state that is allowing for these longer sort of permanently funded grant cycles. Did you see in the biotechnology sector that this sort of movement from quick revolutionary time to incredibly slow revolutionary time occurred? Or I guess, how does this factor into your research, Naomi?

Schoenfeld: I mean, I think what I’m looking at is really at a different time period. But I think that there are– I think the parallels that I could maybe draw have to do with these moments, these urgent moments, and we’re in another one with COVID where there is this sort of urgent emergency need to get the science going as fast as possible.

So Cuba has three of its own COVID vaccines, right? It’s got the Soberana 1, the Soberana 2 and the Abdala. And of course, they got it out. They started giving it very fast. Because of the structure of the government they have basically– I think they’re at like 89% vaccination rate on the island, which is pretty freaking amazing.

So I mean, I think that’s the moment with interferon, when they first purified interferon, is this sort of the pressure to get things into the people, to get things to the people very quickly that maybe that has some parallels with what you’re talking about.

I mean, I think there– I don’t see them necessarily as in opposition to one another but maybe there are– and the whole notion of stability of the state is also sort of– it’s a little false at the same time. It’s an idea and it’s an ideal, but it’s a double edged sword.

But I think that moment of the failure of the harvest is really such an important moment for Cuba and for lots of technoscientific endeavors. And it’s funny, and Clare, I don’t know if you’ll remember this or not, but this is going back to when we met at UC Cuba at Irvine or whatever. Who was it that was talking? Who was talking to us about how Fidel knew it was going to fail before he ever started? And like, what did that mean?

I don’t know if you remember this conversation and I don’t know what the answer to that was, but the proposition was that before he ever– that it was a planned failure. And how do we think about that? I think the audacity of the endeavor, and that still, I think, characterizes a lot of what fuels Cuban science and medicine.

Ibarra: I do remember. I wish I remembered their name, but it was a brilliant scholar from Brazil who had actually published an entire book on the zafra. And there are historians that would agree with this point that it was doomed from the beginning.

And there is also this stereotype that occurs throughout the historiography of Cuban science as well, that Cuban science is haphazard, it’s never fully thought out because of Fidel’s– it was really run by Fidel’s whims and he could never finish a project.

And I think it’s very important, especially from what comes out in my research, where I try to really focus less on Fidel’s speeches and try to do interviews even with the scientists themselves, to see how they were struggling through this moment where Fidel’s excitement shoots themselves in the feet, I guess.

And another case where Fidel’s excitement occurs is in 1967 and ’68, he gets super excited about artificial rain and he brings all of these socialist scholars, or he brings scholars from France, and then there are some from Czechoslovakia, from Hungary, and then, of course, the Soviet Union.

And there’s so much momentum with this where they’re even– not for the first time, but it is a relatively new process for the Academy of Sciences post revolution, where they’re beginning to link up with other institutes.

Because I should say, before the revolution, there was not a lot of communication or a good network that connected these sort of individual organizations or institutes that were doing their own research.

And so the artificial rain excitement was an opportunity for these institutes to work together on something. But it’s another project where within a year or two, you really don’t hear about it, which is a shame.

But I do, again, want to make the distinction that just because Fidel gets excited about things, I know that that’s been used in international conversations as Cuban science is therefore always going to be less than. And that’s why I try in my own work to distinguish Fidel’s intentions versus what the scientists are actually doing on the ground. Because what they’re doing has– it’s valid and it is good science, and we shouldn’t let Fidel overshadow that.

Schoenfeld: I think that’s absolutely– I couldn’t agree more. I’m glad you raised that point specifically. And that’s something that I talk about in my dissertation too, the way that Cuban science and Cuban data is subject to a different kind of scrutiny than ”Western” or science out of North America or Europe. And assumed to have flaws or to somehow be fabricated in ways that it’s serving a particular interest.

And one of the things that I think we take for granted but we now understand, the influence, for example, of industry on our research and the suppression of negative research we have here in the US, for example.

There are so many ways that data is spun to serve a political story. I think that all science is political. And being able to go in and look at research and look at the entire picture is something that we should all get more training on how to do.

Ibarra: And just to jump on that very quickly, I think the most famous case is in the tobacco industry throughout the ’50s and ’60s, where they were able to bring on scientists who were willing to manipulate data to support the tobacco industry to continue to cause so much harm to so many people.

And I think it’s a reminder, like you said, that politics is a part of science, no matter what country you’re in. Because ultimately, you’re trying to get funding from somewhere. And those institutes, those organizations, those fellowships and grants, they have a political mission that when you become a fellow, you adopt, and you have to match your research to their intentions.

Sizek: Well, on that note, I think this is a great message for us to end on that, all science is political and Cuban science is political too. So thank you so much for coming on our podcast.

Schoenfeld: Thanks for having us, Julia. This is great.

Ibarra: Yes, definitely.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit matrix.berkely.edu.

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