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.”

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

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

  • September 27, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    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.

  • September 27, 2014 at 8:24 am

    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.

  • September 27, 2014 at 4:36 am

    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.

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