One of the new changes that took place with the recently ended summer was the elimination of the involvement of Cuban students in rural labor over their vacation months.
Perhaps for many, such work was a mere formalism, a way of “reaffirming” their ideological commitment to the system, and under that concept it was without a doubt a “progressive” measure that they have in fact gotten rid of summer work by students.
A well-known Cuban blogger has even commented about how in her student days the work commitment in labor brigades led her to experience a feeling of ridiculousness, of absurdity, connected (for other people) to the social climbing of future political cadre.
For me, however, I have fond memories of my university commitment to work over those summers. It’s not that I was an unquestioning “comecandela”(1), indeed I was a very contentious student. What I liked was that in BET(2) we were paid a stipend, and on holidays (BET deployment almost always coincided with the July 26 celebrations) we students received twice as much. This was my first experience as a member of the “salaried labor force.”
We were housed in camps in the middle of nowhere (sometimes they used the empty buildings of the rural high school program, which were also situated there for reasons of the “study-work philosophy”). The student leaders were always accompanied by some teachers according to the requirements of production and “logistical” details as determined by the representatives of the state companies or the cooperatives that worked the land where we were assigned.
I don’t remember us being “unproductive,” and the stipend that we got paid was also “real” money, which was especially important at the beginning of the 1990s before the legalization of the “double currency” (which came in 1993, during my last summer in the fields).
We generally worked for two weeks in summer, though some students did less. In fact, for its “outstanding work,” the brigade with which I was working in ’93 (brigades were formed based exclusively on friendship) I had the opportunity to spend a few days of “campismo” (the Cuban public vacation resort program) for free.
Another thing was the “production mobilizations” that took place in the middle of the school year. As these were unpaid, many students rightfully protested this interruption in their studies, especially when it was a few weeks away from their exams.
Others tried to substitute that dirty agricultural labor for professional practice in research centers that might benefit their future studies, though as far as I know no such attempts ever materialized.
What I do remember is that precisely at the beginning of the ‘90s a noteworthy teacher, a party activist and head of the work camp, was warned by the company managers that one group of students had a large quantity of malanga hidden under their beds, picked by them in the field but then snuck into their housing so as to later take them home.
The “prof” told us kids something like: “You have to be smarter and not let them catch you.” This was a time when practically everyone loaded up with root vegetables when returning home simply because there was no other way to get them.
That dual attitude from a teacher, who undoubtedly was an honest person, made me think back then in some depth about how the Cuban economic system functioned.
On that occasion, we all returned home with heavy backpacks full of malanga and sweet potatoes, some even used the friendship of students whose families had a car (normally we used buses called “aspirins” to get in and out of the camp). When these families came to visit them, others would use this as a way to “export” additional quantities of fruits of the Cuban soil.
(1) Comecandela: A person who defends political positions according to the official line of the Cuban government, but who does this in a mindless, extremely rigid and conflictive fashion; also, to a lesser degree, the word is applied to those who “do any and everything they’re told, unquestioningly.”
(2) There existed several types of “participation in productive labor,” the most common of which was the BET (Student Work Brigades, for students beginning at the senior high school level, accompanied by their teachers), as well as FAPI (Forces of Pioneer Action, for students in elementary and junior high school; this emerged in the 1990s) and the BUTS (University Social Work Brigades, which addressed social needs of the public; these appeared in the early 2000s).