Cuba and Kids: Education and the Revolution

One benefit of living in Rock Hill is the opportunity to take classes at Winthrop, the local state university. This spring I studied the history of Cuba and, on the class “field trip”, spend 10 days visiting Cuba. We traveled by minivan from Havana across the country to Santiago de Cuba, with a side trip to Guantanamo, and back. More than most trips I have taken this one puzzled and challenged my views. This is the first of two reflections on my trip. My comments on our visit reflect my views on my experiences only.

Among the many facets of the society we observed and discussed I was, as always, most interested in the education of their children. I knew before my visit that in a 2014 report by the World Bank (1) Cuba was named the best education system in Latin American and as the country with the highest trained teaching corps.

This achievement is all the more remarkable since in January 1959 when Batista left Cuba (with much of his amassed fortune) almost half of the Cuban children 6 to 14 have never been to school. Seventy five percent of the population were illiterate. (2)

Squirrly Kid

Normal elementary kids acting up while waiting to perform

Even before coming to power on January 2, Castro had noted his plans to improve schools. In his manifesto, History Will Absolve Me, he stated that, “An educated country will always be strong and free.” (2) You or I might not agree on his definition of free.

Castro focused on education as the primary way of achieving the economic independence and social justice aims he claimed for his “Revolution”. He saw a literate population as more likely to be loyal to his socialist government and he wasted little time in beginning this effort. By 1961 his government was sending brigades of literate persons into the Cuban countryside to eliminate illiteracy.

Eventually almost 300 thousand persons acted as teachers. Students were trained and sent to live with farm families. They learned the work of farmers as they taught them to read. Groups of adults were tutors to non-readers in the cities. Others received paid leave from their regular jobs to be teachers. All professionally trained teachers were supports for these groups. With continuing programs such as this by 1986 the percentage of children between six to twelve enrolled in school increased and has stayed at almost 100% Cuba’s literacy rate for adults is close to 98%. (3)

“Worker-Peasant” programs offered high school educations to illiterate adults. Those who were successful could go on to university or technical schools. By the 1970’s over 100 thousand adults had taken advantage of the opportunity. (4)

Official government policy was to decrease the disparity between rural and urban, rich and poor opportunities in education as a mechanism for reducing other disparities. For example, programs for “peasant” girls, domestics, and prostitutes began in the early 1960’s. (5) Widely available day care centers date to this time.
Since 1961 when Castro closed all private schools the educational system has been run by the government. (6) Education is 100% subsidized by the government which means students at all levels go to school for free from kindergarten through university or technical school.

Cuba has been noted as the nation which allocates the highest share of its GNP, 13%, to education. (3) (By comparison the U. S. allocates about 6%.) Even during what Cuba calls the Special Period, after the Soviet Union collapsed, educational expenditures dropped no lower than 10% of GDP. The government still supported thousands of teachers released to upgrade their qualifications, for example, and maintained 425 centers for special education. (6)

Education in Cuba seems inextricably tied to supporting their type of government. Certainly, that seemed the intent of Castro’s strong support for it. Under my very rudimentary understanding of socialism/communism the government controls most means of production; sugar cane plantations, cigar factories, hotels, rum distilleries, groceries, drug stores, etc. Rather than the profits going to a private owner the government harvests the profits and allocates them back to the citizens with the stated purpose of achieving a more equitable distribution of income.

In Cuba, according to our guides, currently the highest salaries are about $15,000 paid to university researchers. Medical doctors, professors, and other teachers are also paid somewhere in this range. Thus, health care, education, access to basic food supplies, public transportation, etc. are all supplied by the government. Even a person’s first job as after completing their education is set up by the government in the field for which they have trained.

We learned of numerous citizen groups which seemed to have as at least part of their purpose to engender support for the government and its programs. Part of these groups’ activities support their local schools.

CDR Block Party

Many kids at Santiago CDR Block Party

CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) were apparently originally “spy on the block” groups/individuals who reported on aberrant behavior (e.g., “non-party support”). The CDR event we attended on our tour seemed to be a neighborhood block party with food, talking, singing and dancing for kids and adults. Also with rum for the adults. Mass student organizations such as the Pioneers support academic performance but also the aims of the Revolution. Pioneers was pointed out to us as one of the entry groups for young men into membership in the Communist party.

Our rights

Kids reciting government rights

The country-wide Federation of Cuban Women organizes educational programs for their members and contributes directly to supporting their local schools. The women’s groups are involved in creating and staffing day care centers as well as neighborhood community centers. The community center we visited showcased their visiting students. They were the very normal, wiggly, sociable, preadolescents shown above who could also readily recite what rights their government provides them.

There is only one political party. A representative for each area/district stands for election at intervals and meets in legislative sessions. In recent years, since Raul Castro has come to power, multiple candidates are allowed to declare for office at the local level, rather than letting the local party select the candidate. Increased efforts have been made to solicit input from voters on needed improvements. One of the most requested changes has been to have access to more consumer goods, including electronic devices. These items are slowly entering the economy for workers. TV, cell phones, and computers are more common though little Wi-Fi is yet available. (In Havana, we walked several blocks to the former Havana Hilton to check our email – at a cost of $11/hour.)

Cuba is still open to criticism by the U.S. for having poor records on human rights such as freedoms of assembly, religion, and speech. (7) Opposition parties or publications expressing views critical of the government are subject to being shut down, though such publications still exist. Too loudly and persistently expressed opposition could mean a jail term though this appears to have been more frequent in earlier years. (5) Raul’s government is accepting, even encouraging, more private enterprise. In every restaurant there were groups of guitar-playing serenaders seeking pay from customers. Private restaurants now exist started by private citizens in their own homes. Taxis can now be privately owned. Off the grid bartering for goods has always existed but may no longer need to be kept as secret as previously.

I often thought during the trip of comparisons between the education of our children in the United States and Cuba. I wondered if our training in the US is radically different in some ways. We are trained to honor our country and to know the benefits of our type of government also. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness. Individualism, capitalism, etc., rather than socialism, greater equality and group cohesion.

I envy Cuba their strong education systems where 98% or their children graduate secondary schools versus about 80% here in the US. I envy the strong government support and money for public schools unlike here where we are fighting against efforts to privatize public schools and make them just another opportunity for self-enriching entrepreneurs. However, with even more gratitude than on most of the other trips I have made to foreign countries I was very glad to touch back down in the U.S. of A.

With thanks to Ginger Williams, Professor of History at Winthrop University, who informed us of and included us on this trip.

1. Gasperini, Lavinia The Cuban Education System: Lessons and Dilemmas

2. Perez, Louis A. Jr Cuba: Between Reform And Revolution Second Edition. New York Oxford University Press, 1995.

3. Academic Exchange, 15 Facts on Cuba and its Education System

4. Lutjens, Sheryl Educational Policy in Socialist Cuba: the Lessons of Forty Years of Reform. An excerpt in English from Cuba:Construy endo Futuro in 2000 by Spanish Foundation for Marxist Research.

5. Erikson, Daniel P. The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United Sates and the Next Revolution New York Bloomsbury press 2008

6. Gomez, Andy & Paul W. Hare (26 February 2015) How Education Shaped Communist Cuba. The Atlantic, Feb. 26, 2015.

7. Human Rights in Cuba
Human Rights in Cuba

8. Freedom of the Press rankings. 2015

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