Schools and Culture: Our People in Cuba

Summary: Being part travel guide, part educator, your correspondent places Cuban educational reforms and practice at the center of a recent visit to Cuba.
Our full sized Chinese tour bus, improbably ill-suited to the narrow and tangled streets of Santiago, in the east of Cuba, proved a deft instrument in the hands of our heroic driver, as time and again in a turn his side view mirror would barely clear the edge of a building on a cramped corner. The neighborhood was a post-apocalyptic scene of partially finished, partially hurricane damaged cinder block and brick homes, piled up two and three stories like irregular building blocks, or a poor man’s L’Habitat. We climb in such stages like a cylindrical alien to the top of a hill overlooking Santiago. Ahead of us sat our destination, a tired two story building, its blue and white paint job moldy and blackened in the tropical climate. We have come on our People to People visit to Cuba to a regional arts school, where young entrants to the art world learn to paint and draw and sculpt.
Inside the tired but pleasant interior courtyard, which is ubiquitous in Cuban architecture, we meet with the school’s principal, he a PhD, the first black in authority we have encountered. He introduces us to his school, after which we dutifully trek through various workshops to learn about the school and to meet faculty. In an environment that already seems familiar early in our trip, the instructors have laid out their artwork for purchase; many Cubans have alternate forms of making money. In this case, the opportunity to sell their work to well to do foreigners can readily add a month or more to these artists/instructors’ income. We weren’t told how much these particular teachers were paid, but our Cuban tour guide, Jesus, a university educated former high school teacher, made the equivalent of $20/month before he doubled his pay and then some by becoming an English speaking tour guide for the government tourism office, an ironic career path in a country that promises opportunity via free education through the university level for all.
Jesus’ perspective is common. Though citizens of the United States face strictures in how and when they can visit Cuba, Europeans, Canadians and South Americans do not, and so have been flocking to the luxury hotel and beach scene in Cuba for some time. Thus it is customary, as reported in a recent NPR broadcast, to find the income pyramid inverted, with those in the service industry that caters to tourists earning the more substantial income, and the professional class – doctors, lawyers, professors – earning the more modest salaries. Needless to say, those well-educated types notice the disparity, and so gravitate to the tourist industry. We were told that the bellman at the more upscale hotels was as likely as not to hold a PhD.
In fact, Cuba prepares so many doctors in surplus that these medical people are exchanged to other economies as commodities in international trade. For example, their services are exchanged for Venezuelan oil.
While it appears true that Cuba educates the masses to an impressive degree, many end up staring over a well-educated abyss. The moribund economy fails to produce enough jobs to meet the supply of university degrees, whether because of the US embargo, or due to the fundamental inadequacies of an overly centralized economy. I lean to the latter. Give me a centrally managed economy that can match the shear output of free market organization (mainland China looks like a hybrid), and I’ll take back that judgment. I am not unsympathetic to the Cuban revolution for the fruits of it – that is, the education and health care for all classes, and the apparent adequacy of nutrition and minimal housing (I only saw one person sleeping in a doorway in a fashion common in American large cities) — but there is a profound irony in a political culture that so well prepares its people in these ways only to fail them so completely in their lives as economic and political adults.
We were told by one particularly articulate early twenty-something that many Cuban young people would simply leave, if they could. Though there are rumblings of economic changes along the lines of Chinese style “capitalism,” skepticism about its arrival or the length of time it will take to make a difference was voiced by cabbies and young people alike.
Meanwhile, 60% of Cubans have relatives in the US; they know greater economic abundance is possible, and in fact benefit from it in the form of remittances from the mainland. In a bizarre scene at the airport in Miami as we prepared to embark on our trip, Cuban expatriates crowded the departure areas with shopping carts full of goods they were bringing to relatives, the most notable being big screen TV’s. On the concourse airline authorities have placed large shrink wrap machines manned by muscular attendants in order to bundle all these fruits of capitalism for the 90 mile plane flight to the land of Castro.
Though we seldom sensed oppression among the people we encountered, the sense of energy in its stead could have stemmed from the fact that those connected with the tourism industry in fact had reason to be upbeat because they were relative winners in the system. Above all, the energy level seemed to reflect a determination to survive. Which returns us to the anticipation with which the instructors at the art school showed us their work. That each Cuban has multiple ways to make a living was a view of reality voiced by a number of people we met, even if that meant doing so “under the table” in our parlance, or “on the left” in Cuban idiom.
On another, but circuitously related note, we were stunned to learn that Cuba has to import 80% of its food. In the 19th and 20th century Cuban agriculture became dependent on sugar production first yoked to the North American market and then later, after the revolution, to its Soviet patrons. That latter source of foreign exchange evaporated with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and the jobs connected to the sugar industry with it, apparently without other crops and agricultural jobs to fill the vacuum.
Meanwhile in the 1960’s, after a guided disruption in which professional types fanned out through the countryside to bring literacy to the rural masses (a kind of benign Latin great leap forward), the education system may well have become a conduit through which rural masses found their way to the cities. While a common enough engine for this migration may have been the attraction of city life for an increasingly educated population, it occurred to me that there was something in how the system was constructed that served to weaken the ties of the newly educated to their rural communities of origin, beyond the lack of jobs in a sagging rural agrarian economy.
In one contemporary rural school we visited, on the site of the formerly King Ranch, Cuban style (yes, the same King as that of Texas), which served the children of the ranch staff, we were told that the kids whose classroom we visited would stay in the ranch school until they finished fourth grade, after which they would go to school in a neighboring community for grades 5-9. The twist is that this would be a boarding school, in effect mandatory because school through ninth grade is required for all Cuban kids. In a poor country where rural transportation was difficult, and the cost of gasoline prohibitive, it was too expensive to transport these students daily as is customary in the US, and presumably cheaper to board. The cynic in me wondered if such students were then thought more malleable by the regime to its own ends, out of sight and sound of parents for the duration of the school week.
Whether the cynic is to be served or not, I suspect the practical effect in the earlier agrarian years after the revolution, in what may well have been predominantly small elementary schools similar to the one we visited in the countryside, was to unmoor young students subtly from the textures and byways of their rural agricultural heritage, and to increase the likelihood they would seek their destiny in the sights and sounds of urban excitement.
Whatever the mechanism, we were told that it is now difficult to get people to return to the farm, though new “privado” possibilities allow farmers to sell crops on the private market beyond the quota they are to deliver to the government.
The educational conduit to the cities seems further amplified as the student grows into either an academic high school and a university education or some form of boarding technical education such as the art school we visited on the Santiago hilltop. At each stage the student moves to succeedingly more urban environments, because of the need to concentrate specialty school attendance. In another irony, at least some of the progression to higher levels of education is based on merit. Cuba, the meritocracy.
Parenthetically, I was struck by the echoes of our own culture in the brief glimpse we had of child rearing practices in Cuba via our Cuban guide. It was clearly his message that child abuse in Cuba has declined as the country has emerged from the “Special Period” of scarcity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The implication that better economic times, declining family dysfunction as a result, and rising levels of education eased the harshness of kids’ lives was unmistakable. Similarly, a transition from the old school use of physical discipline to reasoning and the use of rewards and consequences in child rearing echoes an evolution familiar in North America, to some extent linked to the same educational and socioeconomic changes embedded in our guide’s private life.
What of the day to day nitty-gritty on the elementary school level? Besides the small school on the King Ranch, we also visited a first through eighth school in a demonstration ecological preserve, La Terrazas, outside of Havana. Both lower grade schools we visited therefore served the kids of parents whose work bordered on the tourist economy, and so may or may not be representative of all Cuban elementary schools.
Nonetheless, the buildings were more modest than that of the art school we visited in Santiago. Constructed of adobe or cinderblock, and whitewashed, unheated in the tropical climate, they were clean if basic and below the standards American students encounter. Students entered directly into the small rooms from the outside, or from a short hallway that itself opened directly to the out of doors. The kids, as all kids, were cute and well clothed, at variances bashful or shyly communicative, and seemingly well behaved and content to be where they were. They wore uniforms of a color that identified their school level in that particular locality. Typically there were 15 to 18 students to a class, from what we could see with a teacher and an aide, or even two teachers in a classroom. Even at that the rooms seemed crowded.
The schools had older computers, not hooked to the internet, but via which flash drive or CD driven curricula could be explored. In a country where internet access is expensive and limited and its use seems more official than open (though the blogger Yoani Sanchez has earned considerable fame for her edgy comments on Cuban realities), it was not clear to what extent these kids were even aware of the internet and its possibilities in drastic contrast to kids in the developed world. Similarly, the deluge of information common to the developed world seems not to have arrived in Cuba, though we were surprised to get CNN and BBC on the TV in our hotel; here again the cost may be prohibitive and outside the grasp of most Cubans.
In the density of university environments, however, that equation may not apply. One Cuban artist we met, when queried about state censorship of his work and in the general society, commented “there are blogs, flash drives and the internet.” In his view strict regime control was impossible in the contemporary technological environment. And, despite the prominence of the American embargo, many of those flash drives arrive undiluted from Cuban American relatives. Remember the big screen TV’s at the airport.
In elementary schools nationally televised series of lessons are used extensively, we were told, after which the teachers followed up with supplementary instruction and guided practice. It wasn’t clear to what extent teachers created unique materials.
We were struck at the pride with which teachers and students displayed their beautiful handwriting, a characteristic that led some teacher types in our entourage to wonder to what degree the learning in these schools is rote rather than “inquiry” or “critical thinking” based. On a related note, the local guide in our visit to the school in the eco preserve proudly stated that all students had passed the last session of the state exams, which in turn prompted realists within our group to wonder how high or how low the bar is. Cuba, meet Texas?
Similar to news of these passing marks in La Terrazas were other Alice in Wonderland kind of glimpses beyond our immediate proximity that gave us pause in our assessment of what we experienced. An English couple, traveling independently, reported seeing proletariat like tenements crumbling around their Afro-Cuban inhabitants in Havana. One of our guidebooks reported that Fidel had brought some 400,000 Afro Cubans from their rural lands in the Orient, the region in the east of Cuba, in order to bolster his support in the capital with poorer rural folks who were his political constituency. Despite the gleaming renovation of Old Havana for tourists, we had learned that in Havana two or three buildings collapsed daily due to deterioration and neglect, the same crumbling stock of housing infrastructure the English tourists described. They had left Havana in distress at what they had seen.
Despite a common truism we heard, that “all people are the same” in Cuba, with the implication there are no racial distinctions in the way of opportunity, in the same around the corner view we had reason to wonder if shade of skin dictated opportunity. Though the vast majority of people we encountered in person or in the streets were some shade of brown, reliable reports stated that skin color correlated with relative prosperity, despite honest efforts to the contrary by the regime; historical patterns can be wearisome and intransigent. Those who were previously well off remain so, disproportionately those of Spanish heritage; the poor tend to remain poor, and disproportionately Afro Cuban.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man comes to mind, lurking in the Afro Cuban tenements of Havana, as does the struggle in the US to get a handle on our sagging upward mobility, particularly as it applies to our lower income African-American brethren. Echoes across 90 miles. The revolution, it appears, must continue. Siempre.

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