Operations research in Cuba

A brief history of the development of O.R. teaching and research in the Caribbean nation.

By Carlos N. Bouza Herrera and Sira Allende Alonso

The history of Cuba closely follows its relationship with the United States, particularly in regard to the development of O.R. in Cuba.

The history of Cuba closely follows its relationship with the United States, particularly in regard to the development of O.R. in Cuba.

As a result of the Spanish-American War, Cuba was liberated from Spain in the late nineteenth century. Between 1898 and 1902, a provisional administration of the United States governed Cuba. On May 20, 1902, Cuba achieved its independence. The history of Cuba closely follows the complicated path of the relationship between Cuba and the United States, with a wide variety of shades and colors. While this is true in general, it is also true with regard to the development of the Cuban operations research and statistical communities.

Statistics were commonly used in Cuba before 1959, and Cubans and Americans commonly collaborated or extended each other’s research and work. For example, many Cuban physicians studied in the United States during the Cuban colonial period, and many learned about statistics during these studies and returned home to use what they had learned.

Renowned Cuban physician Carlos J. Finlay relied heavily on statistics in his efforts to identify the cause of yellow fever. Finlay used statistical data for establishing the existence of a direct relationship between the epochal abundance of mosquitoes and the increase of the number of cases of yellow fever. He then argued that the Aedes aegypti mosquito was the vehicle of transmission of the disease.

American Army physician Walter Reed subsequently developed and executed studies that generated evidence in support of Finlay’s theory. When the Secretaria de Salubridad (Health Secretary) of the new republic of Cuba was established with Finlay as the chief health officer of Cuba, it included in its structure a Department of Statistics and provided strong support for statistical studies such as “Estadística Sanitaria en Cuba” (Sanitary Statistics Cuba), published in 1903.

Another example of statistical “collaboration” between Cuba and the United States about this time was the exchange of statistics students and professionals, which is credited with bringing to Cuba marketing research techniques commonly used in the United States. As a result, Cuban advertising agencies were established, and these agencies developed and used opinion polls that were administered to samples that were collected in accordance with statistical standards.

During the 1950s, Cuba experienced strong and stable development and growth in its business community and its economy. During this period, the Cuban government and business enterprises (mill owners/producers, as well as trade unions) relied heavily on statistical and time-series analysis to predict the price and quotas of sugar and coffee production in the international market.

University Reform and Specialization

In the early 1960s, the Universidad de La Habana underwent a profound transformation. The Faculty of Sciences had historically graduated students proficient in physics, chemistry and mathematics. The reform introduced a structure of schools within the faculties. The School of Mathematics, launched within the faculty of Sciences, planned to produce specialists in pure mathematics and applied mathematics, with applied mathematics students specializing in mathematical statistics and numerical analysis. The plan was to produce statisticians who would be capable of providing theoretical support to technical work in ministries and state institutions. In addition, these statisticians would be able to develop investigations in research institutions.

This was a rational step for continuing the traditional work in statistics that had been developed in the Cuban medicinal and economic sectors. The mathematical statisticians who graduated from the program were tasked with conducting survey sampling inquiries, designing experiments, analyzing time series and estimating regression models. At this time there were no computing facilities, and the use of computing with calculators was part of the training.

Numerical analysts were developed through the program in response to the need for specialists to deal with computing issues. Large Cuban business enterprises commonly had a department of “Mechanical Accounting” that used computing machines for monitoring economic activities. The most popular machines were produced by IBM and empowered by punch cards. The large enterprises included the Cuban Telephone Company (a subsidiary of AT&T) and Compañia Cubana de Electricidad (a subsidiary of a U.S. electric power monopoly). Medium-size enterprises such as sugar factories had smaller departments. Small enterprises with advanced accounting systems used specialized computing businesses to provide these services.

The ‘Electronic Brain’

The “Electronic Brain” – an old American machine (RAMAC) – was installed at La Habana in the 1950s, thus creating a need for specialists who were capable of dealing not only with the IBM computers in general and the RAMAC in particular, but also of being able to cope with the emerging technologies. The university’s numerical analysis specialization was designed to graduate this kind of specialist.

The first generation of applied mathematicians in these programs took courses from professors who came to Cuba from Czechoslovakia and East Germany, which had a profound impact on the skills Cuban applied mathematicians learned. In the 1960s, these specialists were in high demand, and they consequently began immigrating to the United States.

In the 1970s, Cuba became involved in the development of modern computing. French computers were bought to Cuba, and training in France produced the needed specialists for working with the computers in Cuba. The IRIS computers were counterparts to the IBM 350 and 360. At that general time, the Cuban Ministry of Economy acquired an English computer – an Elliot-805 – and the numerical analysis students were able to use this computer for some practical applications. It was during this decade that Cuba began to take note of the success of operations research in the United States, England, France and other countries, which motivated the launching of an academic specialization in Cuba that was considered to be a derivative of numerical analysis.

The development of the Cuban economy required planning and rational and optimal use of resources. To this end, different Cuban ministries organized groups that were responsible for developing specific operations research applications. Engineers, economists and computer programmers were incorporated into these groups. The first task of these groups was to study established techniques and apply them to real problems that each ministry wanted to solve. Two important outcomes of this movement were the establishment of an academic specialization and an academic journal (Investigación Operacional) in operations research.

As part of this newly established academic specialization in operations research, Cuba organized summer schools (in collaboration with French institutions) in which the teaching of nonlinear programming, graph theory and other challenging operations research topics was a top priority. Professors developed an accelerated program with the objective of quickly preparing students to become instructors of operations research. In another effort to stimulate the growth in operations research capacity in Cuba, a UNESCO-PNUD (Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, or United Nations Development program) was established in cooperation with La Universidad de LA Habana in 1973. This program promoted research as one of its tasks and supported Cubans with advisors for the schools of the Faculty of Sciences. Experts in operations research visited the School of Mathematics for long periods and taught at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

The Faculty of Technology was also involved in this movement through the organization of its School of Industrial Engineering; operations research was included in this new school. The faculty of this school was provided with one of the first IRIS computers from France, and a specialized computer center was built. Young Cuban professors visited English institutions for training and for obtaining MsC’s diplomas, and several English professors stayed in Cuba for months with the Faculty of Technology. Due to the natural relationships with engineering projects, the School of Industrial Engineering dominated the area of applications. At the time, courses on operations research topics, such as linear programming and graphs were taught by the Economics faculty.

Research & Collaboration

In the 1970s, collaboration with Berlin’s University Humboldt was extended to operations research. Humboldt placed greater emphasis on theory than did its Cuba counterparts, and its work at that time was primarily in optimization. A long-term collaboration that included the establishment of Cuban MSc. and Ph.D. programs in operations research developed. The main theme across this collaboration was mathematical programming, and the collaboration included the exchange of professors for the development of joint research within its first five years. In the 1980s, professors from the USSR visited Cuba and promoted a similar collaboration with a basis in optimal control theory.

Will the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. accelerate O.R. collaboration between colleagues from these two nations?

Will the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. accelerate O.R. collaboration between colleagues from these two nations?

With the collapse of the community of socialist countries in the 1990s, the expected need for using operations research for practical issues decreased dramatically. The academic specialization in operations research was terminated, but the interest in operations research in the universities remained strong. Some courses were maintained in the curricula of the careers of mathematics, engineering, economics and statistics.

This stubborn interest in operations research in Cuba motivated the Cuban concept of operations research as a discipline encompassing optimization and statistics, as well as computer science. This tradition is present in the contents of the journal Investigación Operacional, which has been published without interruption since 1966. The journal has on its board associate editors for stochastics, economics, optimization and computing. The associate editors include well-known professors from France, Germany, and Spain; its editorial committee is formed by researchers from the United States, Latin America and several European and Asian nations. Investigaciòn Operacional appears to be the oldest journal specializing in operations research in the region, and it is covered by several refereeing services such as Mathematical Reviews, Zentralblatt fur Mathematik, International Abstracts of Operations Research and Current Index to Statistics.

Today, Cuban organizes and hosts a series of scientific events on operations research, under a broad definition of the term O.R. for establishing the themes covered by these scientific events. The 11th in the series cycle, which concluded in March of this year, included:

  • conferences, where the open themes are optimization, operations research education, probability and statistics, partial differential equations, numerical analysis and algorithms; and
  • workshops, where a theme is fixed and all contributions are oriented toward the theme.

The theme of the 2015 workshop, “Operations Research and Human Welfare Health Environment and Education,” was devoted to the application of the models and methods of operations research in problems related to harmonic development of the human being and his environment. The aim was to promote the interchange on applications of operations research in medical investigation, biological modeling and social researches that are oriented toward improvement of human welfare. The workshop included a colloquium on teaching effectiveness organized by James Cochran of the University of Alabama, and featured INFORMS President Robin Keller and several other speakers from throughout Latin America and beyond. Cochran, co-founder of Statistics Without Borders, delivered the opening plenary.

It is our hope that, in combination with the normalization of the relationship between Cuba and the United States, this conference will accelerate the rate of collaboration between colleagues from these two nations.

Carlos N. Bouza Herrera and Sira Allende Alonso are professors at the Universidad de La Habana in Havana, Cuba.


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