S.M. Reid-Henry, The Cuban Cure: Reason and Resistance in Global Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. xii + 200 pp. (Cloth US$39.00)
Occasionally books absorb readers’ interest with fine lines addressing both disciplinary and area studies perspectives, while also in more subtle ways rousing new angles of analysis and comment that only seem apparent after the writer has carefully guided, nurtured, and then sparked the readers’ latent attention. Simon Reid-Henry’s insightful and engagingly crafted treatise on the development of Cuba’s biotechnology industry is one such book. It draws on a topic about which many may have heard, but probably will not have been able to contextualize—the growth of this scientific and politicized endeavor in such a finely grained and provocative scenario. As the first in-depth analysis of the emergence of Cuba’s particular approach to biotechnology healthcare at the turn of the twentieth century, which also re-addresses capitalist norms of product development and the significance of public health, this text is an important empirical, and conceptually expansive, contribution. Reid-Henry meshes a close ethnographic study of Cuban society with wider, and nonetheless detailed, critical considerations of scientific cultures, moral economy, and the tensions that lie between intellectual, state, and private property concerns. His book skilfully constructs an account of the Cuban “market” for medical knowledge and product development, which reflects the openness of a public healthcare vision, with the strains endemic in institutional policy orientations and restrictive political frameworks and the challenges of capital-led scientific endeavor.
Working with research materials garnered from his primary research in Cuba during the early and mid-2000s, Reid-Henry delivers a valuable historical narrative of the emergence of biotechnological enterprise in Cuba, which originated principally around the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, and the subsequent evolution of the Western Havana Scientific Pole. The story, one proposed as “resistance” within the uneven folds of “global science,” sets Cuban initiatives, and arguably similar scientific enterprise in Morocco, Vietnam, Kenya and Costa Rica, as perennially marginalized during recent decades by European- and North American-measured markers of innovation and worth, as displayed at the annual international gatherings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. Throughout this first part of the book, the interweaving of empirical detail with personal chronicle, and the careful “placing” of scientific advances in the epistemological, as well as Cuban, context, provide a substantive platform for the latter half of the text which reveals state and institutional scientific directives and the political, social, and economic geographies of contemporary sciences that emerge. The Cuban Cure is at once a historiography and a projection of scientific and social transition in a small island economy within uneven global intellectual markets and scientific markers.
Reid-Henry celebrates the success of the Cuban biotechnological model of development, but notes the flaws and stresses that are at once externally derived and internally driven within the spheres of political and scientific academies, revealing the friction and flows generated by successive waves of healthcare evolution in Cuban laboratories. He frames these encounters in the context of “new spaces” whereby the production and implementation of new knowledge, edging toward new paradigms, spawns new social contexts, or spaces for economic development, social interaction, and political rumination. While his conceptual encounters with expressions of space and time may be lazily viewed as a geographical (or a geographer’s) conceit, the core of the thesis rests more astutely in using these critical tools of analysis to reveal the importance of work, and the place of work in shaping societies. While avoiding revolutionary zeal, or mechanical and clunky reversions to modes of production, Reid-Henry places the singularity of Cuba’s biotechnology industry in terms of a cultural analysis of knowledge, work, and capital. He recognizes the moral economic context that placed a value on health for social reasons, stimulating the reflex to seek out preventive medicine as a core public health requirement over decades, and to avoid the over-determination of scientific endeavor by a profit-seeking rationale. In revealing the creation of intellectual and political spaces that promoted this innovative research and independent thought in Cuban laboratories, The Cuban Cure focuses as much on enabling environments as enlightened technological advance. Reid-Henry’s ethnographic approach, absorbing the tales and characters of the plot as well as their scientific successes, reveals these scales of expedition, from individual commitments to pursue new knowledge amid the collective tensions of laboratory work, to the national socialist and international arenas of medical scientific debate and delivery.