Post-revolutionary Cuba is a unique case among underdeveloped countries. This small plot of land – less than one thousand of the emerged Earth surface with barely 1.5 per thousand of the World population, with scarce resources – decided in 1959 to develop an advanced scientific system, with the explicit goal of both solving the most urgent problems for the development of the country and for its population (primarily the health problems), and to overcome the condition of subalternity. This process was very original also for the free and open-minded recourse to every kind of support and collaboration, with Soviet and Western scientists and institution, besides a typical Cuban inventiveness. The success of this project was striking. In the following three decades Cuba built an advanced and articulated scientific system, and achieved an excellence level in leading scientific fields. Among these, one can mention electronics and superconductivity, but probably the most striking top-level results were achieved, quite surprisingly, in a capital-intensive and typically American field like biotechnology. This last success has called the attention of the most qualified international Journals, such as Nature, Science and the specialized literature. Even more remarkable is that the development of Cuban biotechnology was completely independent from any collaboration and support from the Soviet Union, which was backward in this field.
At the turn of the 1980s, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba in an extremely difficult economic situation, seriously putting at risk the achievements of the Revolution, and posing again the threat of subalternity. Most analysts even predicted the downfall of the Cuban economy and regime. The American embargo was intentionally worsened. Actually, the Cuban scientific system withstood the tremendous shock despite the loss of every support, confirming the maturity and autonomy it had attained, even though the economic difficulties inevitably undermined many scientific sectors. In face of such a critical situation, the Cuban government reconfirmed and reinforced the choice of supporting its most advanced and profitable scientific sectors, especially in the biomedical sector, as a strategy to overcome the present difficulties. This strategy proved to be once again a well chosen choice.
The present essay presents a wide-ranging reconstruction of the complex process of Cuban scientific development, based on, and reviewing the relevant literature that has addressed this problem. The explicit thesis is that the Cuban way of addressing and overcoming subalternity is unique in contemporary history.
An original contribution is the first reconstruction of the unique role of Italian biologists in the training and growth of Cuban geneticists and biotechnologists between mid 1960s and mid 1970s.