HAVANA TIMES — I took part in Cuba’s “countryside boarding school” program – which sought to combine study and manual labor – while in junior high school back in the 1970’s. At the time, young people were obliged to go work in the countryside and contribute to the country’s agricultural output for 45 days each school year.
Only a handful of students who could produce a medical certificate describing a chronic condition could save their skins. Teachers would say that refusing to go meant a stain on one’s school record.
The state of the boarding schools was something no one could imagine beforehand. To top things off, parents had to spend money on transportation and food to take to their kids on visiting days (to “improve” the menu there).
When we got there, everything was shrouded by a cloud of red dust. We had to clean up and organize the place, amid the arrival of more prepubescent and scared students (many of whom had never before been away from home).
Though we cleaned and organized our surroundings, the state of our accommodations was quite depressing: there were feces around the latrines (students couldn’t be asked to walk a short distance to go where one is supposed to), the mattresses were old and dusty, the food, in addition to scarce, was badly-cooked.
Likewise, the windows all had cracks where the cold seeped in during the early morning, the bath houses didn’t have roofs and, instead of doors, had a hanging sac of jute held in place by two stones. To make matters even worse, there was no running water and we had to bathe with water brought in buckets from a source. The cold water would run down our skin in the cold temperatures.
Reveille (this is what they called waking us up) would be at 5:30 in the morning. A small glass of milk with a bit of cereal and a bread roll was our modest breakfast. Then, we had to dash off to bathe where the laundry was washed. We did all this in the chilling cold. We would then hop onto trucks and pierce through the icy fog to get to the furrowed plots.
The trip lasted more than half an hour, and they transported us like cattle. Extremely long furrows would be waiting for us. I could barely finish weeding the crop down a single furrow – my friends always had to help me. I didn’t have gloves or boots. I would wear a pair of plastic shoes that would be blackened by the mud. They had only given us two work shirts and a single pair of pants.
Weeding cassava plantations, surrounded by parasitical and thorny weeds was extremely dangerous (that’s why one should wear boots and gloves). At noon, we got a break and they would take us back to the cafeteria for lunch. We’d get back at 2 in the afternoon and continue working until five. We’d even work on Saturdays (until one in the afternoon).
There wasn’t much to do in our free time. We wouldn’t get to watch much television, for the lights went out throughout the boarding school at 10. Once, a group of people from the Cuban Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) came to screen a fairly old movie. That’s the only good thing I remember from those days, and the music they would play so we could dance on weekends. I don’t know why I remember the songs of Peter Frampton particularly.
I would cry often, for I missed my family and loathed that place. It wasn’t even that safe there and teachers would take turns keeping guard, as there were rumors that a stranger was prowling the vicinity to “feel up” the girls and steal our clothing.
I returned home with a case of pneumonia and my right arm injured (a sudden slam on the brakes by the driver left my arm trapped between a rope and the bodies of my classmates). Despite the hematoma and the pain I felt, the woman in charge of the boarding school didn’t let me go home and instead assigned me cleaning chores.
When my parents found out what happened, they became furious and wanted to take me home, but this woman said that would mean a stain on my record (even though there were only ten days left). I returned home on the established date. I was only 13.
A friend told me high school students are still sent to the countryside through this program, but only for a week. I sure hope conditions have improved.