At School We Have to Be on Time

Maria Matienzo Puerto

HAVANA TIMES — Back to school took place a week ago in Cuba. Luckily, every time the school year starts, all Cuban children have a place in our educational system. That’s not just a slogan; it’s true.

They are there even if everything they don’t have the proper materials (books, notebooks, shoes and backpacks) – that’s another story, as is the one regarding whether or not their teachers are or aren’t sufficiently prepared.

I think those days when teachers were demigods who knew everything have passed. I still remember my fourth grade teacher, Alicia Caridad Garcia Osuna. Her classes covered things that went beyond the classroom, the library and even school itself.

What memories!

Nowadays you’ll often find boys or girls coming home from class repeating nonsense. The sad thing is that their teachers — whether they demonstrate gaps in their knowledge or not — are still the authorities.

My cousin came home from her seventh grade class talking about a historic guerilla assault on an army barracks in… “Bayazo”? This made my aunt, a history graduate, start worrying about him more than ever. The boy’s teacher had been referring to the assault on the barracks in Bayamo in 1953.

I have other stories that are even more perturbing.

Tati, on her first day of preschool, was told that the lone star in the Cuban flag was because there had been a single revolution. Narciso Lopez (the designer of the Cuban flag) must have been spinning in his patriotic grave at that very moment.

What was the right answer? The one star is because we became a single free and independent republic.

But this is only with respect to Cuba, because what’s taught about the rest of the world is that it is an instrument created to destroy us Cubans.

As for Tati’s misspellings, it’s better not to say anything.

You can’t blame the kids, of course. The fault lies with everyone who decides who does and doesn’t have access to information. The fault is with those who censor dreams and the miserable spirits that go along with the game.

It’s not a question of going into a tantrum over this. This is only a peek at another of the consequences we experience by not being able to access information on the rest of the world does.

If my access is minimal, access by many other people doesn’t exist at all… and sadly, among “those people” are the teachers.


2 thoughts on “At School We Have to Be on Time

  • Dear Maria,

    As I read your story, it aroused the same feelings I’ve had before when reading articles in Havana Times by Cubans, mostly young, writing about what’s wrong in Cuba. My first feeling always is how similar the problems are to what is taking place in my country. Next, I am struck by how Cubans still express their criticism of what is wrong and place the responsibility for problems on the government, where citizens in my country have either given up or have fewer outlets than Cubans have for expressing their criticisms in the mainstream.

    Any Canadian expecting their government to represent what they want or to address their concerns, would be laughed out of any discussion. Instead, the ones who can afford it send their kids to private schools as public school budgets continue to be cut, resulting in poorer education for the 99% percent.

    But that’s not all that’s taking place here. As I write, teachers in Canada and the US are being targeted from a number of fronts. As one of the areas where unions are still reasonably strong, there is a concerted effort to take away teacher’s unions’ right to strike by declaring them as “essential services” It is a bare-faced union busting strategy.

    With our governments solely representing the ruling elite, unions are our only recourse for addressing ordinary citizens’ needs. Strikes are disruptive, a confrontational way of addressing workers’ concerns at the expense of the workers and of the general public who are left to work around the disruptions. But they are our only recourse.

    We have no hope of holding our government to account under a system based on economic inequality. From what Maria writes, Cubans, living under a system based on egalitarianism, still have some hope. In the end, from what I am reading in HT, both systems are failures on delivering what their citizens want, with capitalism, in addition, failing on citizens’ basic needs – health care, education, employment and housing for all, not just a percentage of the population.

    In my province of Ontario, the provincial government has instituted a wage freeze on teachers, part of the process of bailing out the 1%, paid for by the 99%, a process that we are helpless to stop after more than five years. You can imagine what effect this will have on teaching performance.

    On another front attacking teachers, procedures are being put in place to rate their performance, not by local community review but through one-size-fits-all ‘performance tests’ that result in more problems than what they are presumably trying to rectify.

    This was the perspective I brought to bear when reading what Maria wrote. I would like to comment on a couple of other things.

    Maria wrote that in Cuba, “what’s taught about the rest of the world is that it is an instrument created to destroy us Cubans.” I suspect that even if teachers are not the best, they would not include the whole world, but may have talked about all of the capitalist world. Capitalism has to try to destroy any non-capitalist system lest it ‘infect’ its citizens with awareness of the basic flaws in capitalism – chiefly the inequality it is based on.

    Maria writes that in Cuban education, “The fault lies with everyone who decides who does and doesn’t have access to information,” ” the consequences we experience by not being able to access information [that] the rest of the world does.”

    As an information hound, I am totally in favour of free access to information, and of Cuba working as quickly as possible to make internet affordably available to all of its citizens. Not to do so is incredibly short-sighted on the part of the Cuban government. But, there are significant dangers to be aware of.

    The internet is an unsurpassed tool for acquiring knowledge. It is also an unsurpassed tool for promoting ignorance and unreality, crowding out valuable information by flooding your mind with sensationalism that is hard to resist, disseminating disinformation from anonymous sources and giving a disproportional advantage to those with more financial resources – government and marketing – for dispensing their propaganda.

    There is an immediate example on display here, in the first comment that I will get to soon. Cuba’s universal system of education, even if not perfect, prepares Cubans better than others to come to terms with the dangers, so I have hopes. They will need an advantage. I do not see the citizens in my country using the internet wisely for the most part and feel it is used more as a tool for disinformation than for education.

    Despite the dangers – what I feel is largely responsible for causing the Cuban government to drag its feet on improving internet access, wrongly as I wrote – I think the Pandora’s Box needs to be opened. Fingers crossed, I believe Cubans are in a better position to come to terms with the dangers and reap the knowledge benefits that the internet offers than Canadians are.

    Maria worries about the lack of “proper materials” in schools and teachers’ misspellings but they don’t translate out to inferior learning. Education expenditures in Cuba receive high priority – Cuba spends 10 percent of its central budget on education, compared with 4 percent in the United Kingdom and 2 percent in the United States, according to UNESCO.

    A 1998 study by UNESCO reported that Cuban students showed a high level of educational achievement. Cuban third and fourth graders scored 350 points, 100 points above the regional average in tests of basic language and mathematics skills.

    That was almost 15 years ago, and from what I am reading the education system is going downhill. I wonder if it is going downhill faster that Canada’s in the economic downturn where there is no end in sight.

    Now for the example of the dangers – you have to deal with the ‘Moses’ of the world. He, or his ‘franchise’ is an American or Americans who relentlessly write comments on many HT articles, 7 days a week, 365 days out of the year. ‘Moses’ toes the US government line, although through artifice, attempts to cover this up. The ‘line’, of course is to support the 50-year blockade of Cuba, despite the hardship it has caused Cubans, trying to encourage them to overthrow their government. This aim is also disguised as only wanting to bring ‘pluralism’ and ‘free choice’ to Cuba.

    Recognising ‘Moses’ agenda and artifice is a way of combating the disinformation coming from an anonymous source. But the relentless repetition of the propaganda is designed to infect your mind in unconscious ways. This is the way marketing works – a billion dollar industry in the capitalist world.

    From the Havana Times ‘About Us’ page, “HT is a digital publication for discussion and analysis concerning Cuban life. It is formed from the wide-ranging viewpoints of its columnists and contributors, as well as from readers’ comments, which are also diverse.”

    Yet through relentless postings from one source, there is an overwhelming amount of editorial material on the HT website emanating from one source, from an American government viewpoint, submitted by an American or Americans – the same ‘viewpoint’ appearing every day of the year as multiple comments.

    I feel this needs to be addressed. I could ask HT to set limits on what one commenter can submit but that involves more ‘moderation’ which inevitably involves censorship. The only other way is to balance it off, which is what I am doing. It has been a good learning experience, albeit a depressing one. I hadn’t really fully realized what Cubans have been up against for decades until I was forced to do research – using the wonderful internet tool of course.

    But once internet access is universally available in Cuba, you will have to deal with ‘Moses’ multiplied to the power of one million. Be prepared.

    Let’s look at ‘Moses’ comment and the artifice it employs. He tries to appear to be a friend of Cubans, writing he wants “to assist a friend and neighbor of my favorite casa particular” by sending money via a “mule”. He uses two terms familiar to Cubans to let us know he’s knowledgeable about Cuba and cares about their welfare.

    It is also designed to cover up what he represents – an American who supports and proselytizes for his government’s blockade and the overthrow of the Cuban government.

    Once set up, ‘Moses’ hits us with his ‘money shot’ – the contributions being asked of families to contribute for the purchase of school fans “represents about one week’s salary.”

    The unstated message is, under capitalism, paying 3 CUCs would not be a big deal. Also unstated, for obvious reasons, under capitalism it would be no big deal if you had a job, were not in debt for medical expenses, had not just lost your home in the sub prime debacle, etc. etc. Or even had children going to school as they dropped out long ago to try to earn a living.

    Cubans, please be aware.

  • I’ll bet Cuban schoolchildren are never taught that the Venezuelan Narciso Lopez, credited with the design of the Cuban flag, was inspired by the “Lone Star” flag flown in Texas, hence their similarities. BTW, I just sent some money to Cuba via a “mule” to assist a friend and neighbor of my favorite casa particular. Part of the money sent will be used to buy a fan for the classroom of this neighbor’s 8 year-old child. It seems that the teacher asked every student (about 24) to contribute 3 cuc to try to purchase two small fans for the classroom. No big deal right? Except that in Cuba, 3 cuc represents about one week’s salary.

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