Memories of Student Rural Labor in Cuba (II)

Dmitri Prieto

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 13 — Reading the comments to my previous post on the subject of student rural labor, I was reminded that sending students to work in the countryside wasn’t exactly a Cuban invention. That practice also existed in the former USSR. In fact, I believe that all countries calling themselves “socialist” did something similar.

In Cuba, however, the thinking of Marx and Marti was invoked, in addition to the needs of the local economy for farm work carried out by students.

However, in this recently begun century the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva (unfortunately I don’t recall the edition) published a thorough study on the topic of “schools in the countryside,” where it was shown that what Marti was talking about was how children in rural areas should learn agricultural practices together with general knowledge.

He said nothing about sending boys and girls from the cities to work in the country.

Going back to the USSR, actually, my first agricultural experiences date back to a farm there when I was about nine years old. I was in a pioneer camp when they took us out to a potato farm (as I recall, though I could be mistaken).

The experiences of “going to the potato fields” (na kartoshku in Russian) were required even of noted scientists and other intellectuals (adults, even those entering their senior years). There are even songs about this. It was thought that intellectual work needed a touch of wet earth, the air of the village, and going down roads in the back of a truck.

The Soviet equivalents of the Cuban “Student Work Brigades” (BET) were the “Student Construction Troops” (SSO, by its initials in Russian).

The SSO was to BET like Siberia to Cuba’s Isle of Pines. Indeed, during the “summer work period,” young people would be sent to Siberia and other even more distant places (can there be anything more distant than Siberia?) to construct industrial parks and new towns, roads and railroads, and cut down forests.

Some Cubans who were studying in the USSR would go there during those summers when they didn’t spend their break back in Cuba. People have shared their experiences with me, nostalgically recalling campfires and guitars, vodka, Russian trova, boys and girls falling in love, and of course hard work.

But the hard work in SSOs was also very well paid. Siberian wages were much higher than those in the center of the country, so students would use their summers to add to their savings. Some would even use their earning to help out their parents.

My former supervisor from when I was a biotechnologist proudly showed me a nice radio he brought back from the USSR after buying it with his money earned during a summer working in construction. Students tend to be poor in any country, so working for good money does their pockets especially good.

In contrast, the wages paid by the Cuban BET would last only a few weeks, if not days. But at the same time it was something.

For me, though, the most important part of these summer gatherings was sharing with people who you liked a lot, as well as making new friends.

People like me used to ignore dances and watching TV (which was the form of recreation available “by default”). In the evenings, nights and early mornings we would start talking about every possible topic. Politics prevailed, of course, but we’d also discuss philosophical issues or exchange our views about different books we would read there at camp.

It was there that I got to know Umberto Eco and Herman Hesse, the Etruscans, the Yoruba and others. Plus, it wasn’t the cold, isolated form of reading a book; instead, it meant sharing what was read.

There we heard our first stories by Orlando Luis Pardo and we caught up on contemporary science through Professor Reiner Veitia.

To be honest, I don’t think that I’ll ever forget those times.

That’s why after I graduated and was working as a molecular biologist, I remember during my first summer vacation as a worker, a friend proposed — half jokingly — that we go out into the country with the students of our faculty.

But it wasn’t possible: one can’t step into the same river twice. Now it will never will be possible, or at least not for a long time, not until the next turn of the wheel of history.

Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

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