The History Notebook of a Conscientious Cuban Student

Erasmo Calzadilla

HAVANA TIMES — Every July, when the summer break starts, the city’s dump-sites fill up with notebooks thrown out by student’s who’ve finished the school year. They believe, and not without reason, that the notes they have jotted down in class are as good as garbage.

Since most bins overflow with garbage and I have a strange fascination with refuse, I discretely rummage through these from time to time.

I have come across truly interesting things among the waste. One of the prize-winning finds this summer is someone’s Contemporary World History notebook.

It seems to have belonged to a conscientious and meticulous tenth-grade student. It is a beauty of a notebook, and very well-preserved at that. I pulled it out of the garbage to answer a question I’ve had for a long time: what kinds of lies are they using to muddle kids’ minds these days? The same ones they used to try and clog up my brain?

History According to the Notebook

The course kicks off with the First World War. From the word go, one can smell the ideological prejudices and the rancid “didactic” method the teacher used.

In Argentina, you look under a rock and what you find is a psychoanalyst. In Cuba, every rock hides one or more PhDs in pedagogy. How is it possible, then, that in the 21st century, long after Father Felix Varela lost his voice warning people that learning things by memory was sheer nonsense, that learning in Cuba continues to be eminently a matter of memorizing things?

The History notebook I pulled out of the garbage consists of dictated notes from the first to the last syllable – ideas the student will have to parrot if they are interested in passing the course.

Why this stubborn insistence on memorizing? It is a vicious circle that has its roots in the decadence of the system, a direct result of the miserable condition thought is degraded to under dictatorships (people’s ability to think has deteriorated to such an extent that there’s no longer any need to monitor it), of the doctrinaire nature of the course (which indulges no one and does not allow anyone any creative freedom) and of the zealous vigilance maintained by our political commissars.

The worst part is that everyone involved – parents, teachers, pedagogues, the mass media and even the students themselves – work together to keep the system working in this morbid fashion. It is a systemic problem.

Looking at the Content

The course starts with the First World War, with a focus on the Great October Revolution and with special emphasis on Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.

The notebook describes early 19th-century Russia as a semi-feudal country where nearly the entire population was poor and illiterate. To make matters worse, it had to shoulder the weight of an imperialist war, a situation that the capitalists and middle-class take advantage of to spark off a bourgeois revolution. But then the great leader shows up and, armed with Marxist theory, expertly guides the masses towards the triumph of socialism. Neither the Mensheviks, nor even the soviets, the heart and soul of the revolution, are mentioned in this simplistic and boring fairy-tale.

Two classes later, Lenin dies and not even the most basic assessment of the leader is attempted. It is as though this great genius was never wrong. Following Vladimir’s death, the struggle among different Party factions to fill up the vacancy begins. Lev Trotsky and Joseph Stalin stand out among the quarreling leaders.

Beyond these three characters and “historical necessity”, the course makes no mention of any other figure or leader within the revolutionary process. The people and workers serve merely a a backdrop, the filling, the masses that suffer and applaud. This way of recounting revolutions rings a faint bell.

Between the Wars

Of all developments in the USSR between the two world wars, the notebook only mentions the country’s achievements: the vertiginous industrialization of a backward country, the improvement of people’s lives…no mention is made of the strict control of the “republics”, the forced collectivization of the countryside (which led to the deaths of millions of people), the political purges that put over 700 thousand human beings before the firing squad, the concentration camps where the “scum” was sent to die of cold and hunger, the criminal and ill-intentioned intervention of Stalin and his retinue in the Spanish Civil War, nothing, in short about the crushing dystopia that the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party, in their thirst for absolute power, turned the hopes of the world proletariat into.

When the course ought to have touched on how the Party betrayed the revolution, it shifts its attention to the Nazis.

The Textbook

To see the extent to which this notebook agrees with the official story, I borrowed a history textbook.

The textbook acknowledges Stalin’s mistakes a bit more, but it is still deceitful. It admits, for instance, that the workers played an important role during the revolution, organizing and taking factories until becoming a force to be reckoned with. What the textbook doesn’t say is that, once the revolution triumphed, Lenin and his party crushed all of the progress the soviets had achieved in the establishment of non-hierarchical and horizontal society – the only one compatible with socialism – brutally and treacherously. Stalin was the diabolical but logical outcome of a structure that Lenin had already consolidated.

Regarding the forced collectivization of the peasantry, the book tells us that the Leninist principle of voluntary participation was neglected and that violence (including arrests and deportations) was used. That is the extent of the textbook’s sincerity.

It deals a bit more extensively with the purges in the army and within the Party: “An atmosphere of intolerance, hostility and suspicion was created. There were crimes and abuses of power, judicial processes of dubious integrity were instituted to condemn prestigious figures.” It fails to explain, however, that this mad situation is the logical outcome of the concentration of power in the political class, after it had been snatched from the workers.

All history courses, to be sure, simplify and omit certain details to suit their priorities and interests. This one, however, goes a bit further: it is a gross and intentional manipulation of historical facts. The textbook problematizes some episodes a bit more, without putting the official script aside, but the notebook offers us a glimpse at what is happening between the four walls of the classroom and at the guidelines of the syllabus.

To close off, I would like to leave you with one of the “assessments” of the applied and conscientious tenth-grade student.

Teacher: “Assess the historical importance of the defeat of fascism”.

Student: “I consider the defeat of fascism highly important, for it cleared the road towards a new historical stage in which crimes and murder were a thing of the past. For many, it was a new beginning that put an end to the horrors of concentration camps, demonstrating socialism’s superiority to fascism.”

11 thoughts on “The History Notebook of a Conscientious Cuban Student

  • Canada’s current immigration under a Conservative Government is at over 250,000 per annum, much more generous than the Trudeau Liberal Government which limited immigration to 86,000 (1981) with preference given to political and racial refugees.
    I remain critical of the western world’s failure to provide for refugees 10 years after the end of the war. They became aware that many Eastern European refugees who by agreement with the USSR were sent back to the east, went to their deaths.
    The journey through Austria was fraught with difficulties as those fleeing from Czechoslovakia and Hungary had to get through the Russian zone. Vienna; like Berlin in Germany, was in the Russian zone, so for those who made it into Vienna there was a further difficulty.
    I know of one Czech young woman, who got to Vienna and my father learned of her plight. Four weekends running he drove from Vienna down to the British zone – Klagenfurt being the British zone centre – to accustom the Russian border guards to his habit and on the 5th weekend had the girl in the trunk hidden by false suitcase fronts.
    The very happy ending was that she married one of his agents who had flown in the Battle of Britain wearing Czech shoulder patches and subsequently been recruited for MI6.
    i had the pleasure of first meeting Zora and Mike in 1952 two people of deep conviction and both of whom had risked their lives in pursuit of freedom.
    Both understandably detested communism and dictatorship. They spent the rest of their lives in Austria
    which following the negotiated Russian withdrawal became a free democratic country.

  • Canada & the US did take many of these displaces persons during the post-war era, but not all of them. I work with a man who was born in Hungary. In the chaos of the last days of the war, his family fled through Austria and eventually to a refugee camp run by the US army. Canada accepted the family as refugees in 1950.

    The refugees who fell into the hands of the Soviet Red Army faired much worse. They were sent to forced labour camps in the Soviet Union where they toiled until they died. Stalin did not free anybody.

  • I still remember many of the questions I had to answer in my History tests:

    Demonstrate with 5 examples how the Warsaw Pact is a pact of “friendship” between the East European countries.

    Demonstrate with 5 examples how the CAME is a “superior and stronger” form of economical association between countries.

    Demonstrate with 5 examples how the standard of living in the Soviet Union is higher than in the USA.

    Demonstrate with 5 examples how the progressive’s forces in the world (communist forces) are winning in the fight against the capitalist forces.

  • When Germany regained its sovereignty in July, 1955 and we occupying forces became allies and guests, there were still displaced persons camps containg stateless people predominently from Eastern Europe. I recall vividly visiting one lying in the woods betweeen Duisburg and the Dutch border.
    Those poor people had few assets, little money and even worse ten years after the cessation of hostilities, no hope. Prostitution was rife and was about the only reason for contact with the local population.
    Canada which tends to pride itself today with being humanitarian and generous (not without reason), could have given those people refuge and a future but stood aside, as indeed it did with the boatload of Jews fleeing from Hitler prior to the Second World War.
    Although not concentration camps, the conditions were dreadful, and nobody and no government seemed to care.

  • Please do add those camps to the list as well.

    The history of the “concentration camp” is long, varied and horrific. Did you know the “concentration camp” was invented in Cuba, by the Spanish in the 1880’s?

    Since then they have been used all around the world, from the Boer war, to Canadian & American internment camps during WWI & WWII, to the French in Algeria, Turkey, the USSR, China, Spain… dozens of examples.

    It is important to make distinctions between prisoner of war camps, civilian interment camps, forced labour camps, and extermination camps. The conditions inside the camps varied over type, era and purpose. The UMAP camps, and the WWII interment camps for the Japanese in America were far less brutal than the Soviet Gulags or the Nazi extermination camps.

    Human brutality is a universal virtue.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, Carlyle! You were truly fortunate to have such a teacher. Of the many teachers I have had, I can remember just a few who were really inspired. Fortunately, once I became a self-motivated learner, I was able to delve deeply into a subject despite teachers who were uninspired hacks, or who just didn’t know how to teach (of which I count myself when I first started teaching).

  • Griffin, I’m sure it’s just an innocent omission that you forget to list the Non-Communist KZ’s that sprung up post 1945. Like for instance, Eisenhowers DEF camps, which were instructed to offer the ex-Wehrmacht grunts “no comforts”, such as latrines, food or shelter. Reportedly, some 1+ million men died of exposure, disease and starvation in those Lagern. I’ll take the UMAPs, thanks.

  • The student’s answer also included the Big Lie that the defeat of fascism brought the end of concentration camps. Not so. The tradition was carried in in the USSR where Stalin sent hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers to the Gulag, along with uncounted legions of foreign prisoners of war. Mao in China, Kim in North Korea, and the Communist regimes of Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos embraced the concentration camp with zeal.

    In Cuba, Fidel sent thousands of political prisoners to prison camps. And let’s not forget the 200,000 gays, hippies, Jehovas Witnesses and “other social misfits” who were sent to do forced labour in the UMAP camps during the late 1960s.

  • emagicmtman you have hit a few nails on the head. Your comment about a genuine love of thge subject taught gave me a combination of pleasurable and sad memories. I have had a love of the English language since school where I studied both English language and English literature. I was fortunate in that throughout school, I entered the Grammar School in 1945, I was taught both English subjects by a remarkable teacher. I was a touch precocious and left school at the age of sixteen to go to study agriculture.
    I wrote a letter to that English master who had served during the war as a Major.
    He replied and so started a correspondence which lasted for thirty five years before we met again when I was visiting the UK and visited him in retirement.
    He had said in a letter that I was one of only two former pupils whom he had taught. When I entered the sitting room in his small cottage, I immediately turned back to him and said that I now knew who his other correspondent was. He smiled and said: “Yes, it’s David>” Hanging on the walls were three original David Hockney paintings.
    We spent a few hours together and as we parted he gave me a copy of one of his books and wrote a very touching inscription. We never met again, but by sheer chance I happen to be re-reading that book after many years. It is: James Joyce by Kenneth Grose. It is one of a series named Literature in Perspective and Ken Grose was in addition to writing the books on Joyce and Shakespeare was the General Editor of the series of thirty eight. Published by Evans Brothers.
    Ken Grose contributed much to his pupils and I will always be grateful for both his teaching and later his friendship. During those school years my father was absent in Vienna practising his craft which I have mentioned in some of my comments in these columns. That did at least give me a basis for commenting upon the USSR in Eastern Europe and spies. Later in life I was to serve as a Military Police Officer in Germany when we were still occupying forces and was there when Germany regained her sovereignty in July, 1955.
    I should tell you of a wonderful thing that then happened. The first Bill that the great Konrad Adenaur placed in front of the Bundestag, which at that time met in Bonn, was to abolish the death penalty. He said publicly: “This is to ensure that my country can never kill a man again legally.”
    The effect upon thinking Europeans was magical.
    All this is to encourage you in your professional capacity. As I have also said, my wife is a ‘profesora’ in Cuba, and is similarly dedicated.
    I at one time had a Canadian Secretary who once said to me that I was always talking about history and that: “History is bunkum.” My immediate response was;
    “Gayle, our history is what we are.”
    She later pursued Provincial politics!

  • Whether in Cuba or the States (or anywhere, really), most secondary students get a one-dementional view of history. Here in the States there is generally a quick-time forced march through history, with facts, figures and dates thrown in a bewildering rapidity, with little real analysis. Mostly, it is “teaching to the test.” There is no deep analysis, just the piling on of cliches. Some textbooks are better than others, especially those AP texts which have a sense of humor, wit and irony, but for the most part, these texts are as deadening as the Marxist-Leninists texts which were the basis for the class your student took.
    I try to make history more meaningful for my students by connecting the general to the individual. For example, the grandfather of one of my students was a belly gunner in a B-47 which flew over Germany during World War II. I had him do a research project and presentation during the schools community meeting utilizing YouTube videos, (both those in the bomber, and those done by the Nazis on the ground reflecting the damage), a power-point presentation, plus personal stories told to him by his (recently deceased) grandfather, etc. He was able to embrace the project and overcome his fear of public speaking. In the end, he received a genuine ovation from his peers. I am sure there are inspirational teachers in Cuba, but as here, they are few and far between. Such creative techniques are only arrived at through trial-an-error, a genuine love of the subject taught, enthusiasm, and good fortune.

  • The final part of your excellent article displays the core of the dificulty. If a student in Cuba whether at school, high school or university answers a question posed by a teacher or lecturer, their response indicates whether they have fully absorbed the distorted information to which they have been exposed or not. If the answers are not supportive of socialist thought, they fail. To provide an independent view which in any way questions the regime’s party line is to invite investigation. Has the local CDR noticed this deviation and is the student’s family suspect?
    So as the state wishes the people to speak only their ‘truth’ the intelligent student will bleat along with the rest of the flock – and thereby succeed.
    I have read papers by students at University level and noted how the smart students endeavor to include a quote of Fidel Castro Ruz in the first two to three pages – therein lies the route to success!
    “Fascism” is widely used to describe those who are non-socialist believers. That drunken Venezuelan who drove his car into the front of the Venezuelan Embassy in Aruba was described by Nicholas Maduro as being “A Fascist plot”. To slough off the reality of Adolph Hitler being a National Socialist, the other socialists describe him as a fascist.
    Mussolini and Franco were fascists and they got along well with Hitler – just as Hitler and Stalin got along sufficiently well to decide in 1940 when others were fighting against Hitler, to carve up Poland. What they all had in common was being dictators, a position held in Cuba by the Castro family regime.
    The message to all students in Cuba is: ‘Toe the line.’

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