Education in Cuba, What’s Left 20 Years Later

Fernando Ravsberg*

The classroom walls need a paint job, the desks are old and worn and blackboards are hard to write on, but all Cuban children, without exception, are guaranteed schooling. Photo: Raquel Perez
The classroom walls need a paint job, the desks are old and worn and blackboards are hard to write on, but all Cuban children, without exception, are guaranteed schooling. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — I continue to be amazed at how, school year after school year, no Cuban child is denied an education, not even those who live in remote areas of the country, are very poor or have special learning needs.

In our continent, this is nothing short of a miracle. When I think of my country, Uruguay, what comes to mind are children who rummage through garbage and have never even seen a primary school uniform, or those who simply could not get up early enough to go to school because they spend the entire night asking restaurants for leftovers.

Those who measure everything by First World standards may not be able to comprehend this, but the immense majority of human beings live in a world which denies 57 million (1) poor, homeless or disabled children the right to schooling.

Cuba’s educational system is burdened by many problems. Salaries are low and many teachers quit the profession, to be replaced by people who are barely qualified. Over the years, while the country threw away resources on impossible projects, the quality of education gradually deteriorated.

Teacher salaries are doubtless the greatest obstacle faced in the sector. This issue has serious repercussions, from the sale of exam results to a veritable exodus of teachers, who leave the classrooms in the thousands, chasing after the opportunities opening up for the self-employed.

These salaries have seen next to no improvement, even though the government has already openly acknowledged that intensively-trained teachers – “instant teachers”, as some Cubans mockingly refer to them – do not have the needed qualifications and retired educators brought back to the classroom will not be around forever.

We have to recognize, however, that Cuba’s educational system is trying to put its feet on the ground and come to terms with the reality of a poor country, forced to place its plans in step with real possibilities and resources and to accept that this is the only way of making one of its most important and costly of social achievements sustainable.

More than 50 thousand children with dissabilities like Miguel Angel study at schools for pupils with special learning needs, which employ teachers trained to bring out the best in them. Photo: Raquel Perez.
More than 50 thousand children with dissabilities like Miguel Angel study at schools for pupils with special learning needs, which employ teachers trained to bring out the best in them. Photo: Raquel Perez.

To begin saving on resources, the Cuban government set up high schools in cities, shutting down boarding schools in the countryside where thousands of young people studied, slept, had breakfast, lunch and dinner and round-the-clock access to free medical services.

My two children went to a boarding school in the countryside and have fond memories of those days, but the truth is that the experience was quite traumatic for other students and even more so for their parents, who had to work miracles to improve their daily meals and find some means of transportation to visit them.

Today, students are sent to those boarding schools only when it proves economically rational to do so. I am told that a number of countryside schools that had very few students in them were closed down and the students transferred to larger institutions, where they spend the entire week (to return home on Friday).

Efforts to make higher education meet the country’s economic needs are also underway. In a nutshell, these efforts consist in putting an end to such practices as training philologists or journalists who will later have no choice but to work as waiters, in a country that is in dire need of agronomists, doctors, carpenters, masons or teachers.

In recent years, university enrollment has been reduced, while more vocational and trade schools have been opened in an attempt to recover the qualified labor force which the country had lost almost entirely.

This year, around 85 thousand people pursue medical studies. This may seem like a disproportionately large figure, but the truth is that, today, medical services are Cuba’s chief source of revenue – and everything seems to indicate that their economic significance will be even greater in the future.

Despite the economic crisis, Cuba’s educational system continues to function around the country. There are even free ballet academies where young talents begin their careers. Photo: Raquel Perez.
Despite the economic crisis, Cuba’s educational system continues to function around the country. There are even free ballet academies where young talents begin their careers. Photo: Raquel Perez.

The medical services offered by Cuba’s 20 thousand medical doctors and 30 thousand other health professionals working abroad earn the country more money than tourism and family remittances put together. The sector more than takes back what it spends on medical training and is profitable enough to continue to improve the salaries of its professionals.

Today, the biggest challenge faced by Cuba’s educational system is to remain sustainable without thereby ceasing to be accessible to everyone and free of charge, that is to say, without having to close its doors on any child, be it an orphan, a kid with Down syndrome, the son or daughter of a farmer, a bricklayer or even a criminal.

They seem to have been successful so far: this year, 2 million Cubans began the school year, art schools and institutions for orphans continue to welcome students, 800 children are starting ballet lessons and tens of thousands of physically or mentally disabled kids receive special education, learning to make the most of their skills.

Though the quality of education offered in Cuba has undeniably deteriorated since the economic crisis of the 1990s, this September, 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all Cubans who wish to have an education can still rely on a classroom and an educator, free of charge.

(1)      http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/ultimas_noticias/2013/06

(*) An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


7 thoughts on “Education in Cuba, What’s Left 20 Years Later

  • September 19, 2013 at 9:03 pm
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    Dr. Jones, thank you for your personal response. Congratulations on having raised two professional daughters. Your comment makes my point. Your anecdotal experience validates your point of view. However, empirically, the opposite would appear to be true. American doctors, to be specific, are far better trained and produce medical, therapeutic and surgical advances in far greater numbers than their Cuban counterparts. These are the facts. Your example of the Russians (again, not Cubans) excelling is no surprise. It is not that their educational system was better but rather these particular individuals, who recognized their exceptional talent, sought to migrate to the US where their talent would like be better compensated AND where they would more likely be associated with other equally talented professionals. To prove my point, just go back to their village in Russia and compare the professionals left behind who went to the same schools that the Russians who migrated went to and you will find that overall, the American professional is much better prepared. American has been attracting the “world’s best” for a long time.

  • September 19, 2013 at 8:30 am
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    Dear Moses, as a direct beneficiary of the wealth and freedom available to many in the United States, some would expect of me, unconditional praises for everything made in USA, even if I failed to be truthful and became part of the problem.

    My biases comes from having a 50 year old engineer daughter who teaches in a technological institute for the past 24 years and a 40 year old physician daughter who teaches basic sciences for the past 15 years in Cuba. My American daughter have spent 8 years in a primary and secondary classroom in Florida to date. Four, sixty year old cousins teaching dentistry in Venezuela and Jamaica, biology in Brazil and Spain are part of the basis for my conclusions.

    Confronting and not covering up education and other societal shortcoming in Cuba and everywhere else, should be our moral obligation to the world, rather than attempting to transform them into ideological differences. Russians, who for decades our media disparaged and made degrading jokes about as we failed stridently to educate our youths, can be found occupying leading positions in every field of knowledge in Florida, New York, Boston and elsewhere.

    Tens of US minority physicians trained in Cuba, are sharing their knowledge in underserved communities across the country. More, not less is what is needed for those without healthcare. Support enrollment and provide updated technical equipment to these students, seems the way to go.

  • September 17, 2013 at 9:12 am
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    Mr. Jones, you have obviously joined the chorus of those Cubans who love to sing the praises of the Cuban educational system without a basis in fact. To allege that the worst Cuban student is a better student that his counterpart in the US begs the question? Where is the proof? I do not doubt that your anecdotal experiences validate your beliefs but this fails to take into account the personal biases you bring. The fact is that there are scant few advances in technology and science which affect our daily lives owed to Cuban educational superiority. On the other hand, US universities, while in relative decline over the last decade, continue to lead the world in patents and scientific advances. These are the facts and not nationalistic jingoisms. The truth is that Cuban architects, doctors, engineers, scientists, and computer programmers have contributed very little to the body of professional knowledge which advances civilization. A myriad of excuses can be made: lack of equipment, low incentive pay, blah, blah, blah. The fact is that the next Bill Gates is not likely to be a Cuban.

  • September 16, 2013 at 8:29 pm
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    I interpret the problems of the Cuban educational system to be a lack of resources. Teachers salaries are too low. Not enough modern equipment. Students rushed through the system so more can enter.

    The problem cannot be solved by allocating more of the available resources. That would mean something else would get less. It is like slices of a pie, for someone to get more, someone else must get less. And there is nobody who is not already getting too small a piece. The problem is that the pie, or the country’s economic resources, are simply too small. The educational system is just another impact of the poorly performing economy.

    The solution is overall economic growth. This will only happen with a change of the political structure of the country. Anything else is a fantasy that will not survive reality.

  • September 16, 2013 at 3:19 pm
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    Please allow me to jump into something I accrued a bit of experience in life, as opposed to many naysayers. In addition to my job in Veterinary Pathology in Cuba, I was a student instructor at a technological institute, I was an alumni instructor at the Veterinary Medical School in Havana, during my stay at the national diagnostic laboratory in Havana and at the Provincial Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in the Province of Oriente.

    In the US, I had the opportunity to work for 10 years in Veterinary Diagnostics and three years teaching in a Junior College. Apple and Apple, not Apple and Oranges.

    My critical assessment of most of this dual experience, is that our training in Cuba was up to par with our counterpart in the US. Cuban professionals in the same field, are more dedicated, more committed, more scientifically driven than our counterpart in the US, although being severely underpaid, deprived of updated equipment and technological development, which would put us over the top.

    Regarding my experience in academic areas in the US, it hurts to admit, that my worse students in the technological and university setting in Cuba, are far better than those I encountered in graduate settings and in my Junior College Health education job. It is pathetic! Much, much more needs to be done in the US, to motivate, demand and require of our students, beyond the verbalistic, cyber training.

    This does not deny in anyway, the serious breakdown of the educational system in Cuba, in which, there is a critical lack in the training Spanish language, spelling, civics, literature, history. Biology, physics and natural sciences, where lab work and practices practices have been severely curtailed due to chronic deterioration of laboratories, equipment, reagents and transportation resources, depriving them of critical hands-on training.

    University training, especially in medicine, MUST slow the pace and deepen the knowledge/requirements of basic sciences. A 50% increase in curriculum hours of students laboratory, research and hands in pre-med is an imperative. Re-structuring the professoral/instructor system, which is severely affected by excessive meetings, wasted hours without classes on their jobs, increased apathy of the staff because of their miserable salaries, equip and upgrade all working instruments and triple the staff working budget to improve their living and working condition, to equate them with professionals around the world.

    Nothing requires immediate restructuring in Cuba today, more than education in all of its forms. There are no need to create and use emergent, unqualified teachers, in a country with tens of thousands of REAL, highly trained educators who have taken early retirement in disgust and physicians, engineers, attorneys, biologists, journalists, humanists, who could fill every vacancy as a second job in education, if the government only allowed to pay for these services, provide these professionals with the means of transportation, so that they can get in time from A to B easily and above all, STOP and bring to an end, the demoralizing system of having teachers sit in school for 8 hours, with or without having classes to teach.

  • September 16, 2013 at 1:09 pm
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    No education system is free. They all have to be paid for somehow. The Cuban people pay for their education system through their abysmally low wages. The government taxes them at a 95% effective tax rate before they even see their pay-packets.

    Therefore, the Cuban education system is a shared-cost, publicly funded system, not “free”.

    One must ask, what is the value of literacy if the government does not allow a free press? When the books of so many great Cuban authors are banned from the island, what is the benefit of being able to read?

  • September 16, 2013 at 11:54 am
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    The proverbial argument ” Cubans are better off than Haitians” or in this case, Uruguayans is wearing thin. If the only way to justify a broken educational system in Cuba is to compare it to virtually non-existent systems or systems far more broken, then the motivation to improve the Cuban system is lessened because there will always be another country worse off. (OK, except in the case of the Cuban internet, which is the worst in the world) Ravsberg should instead focus on one of the many areas that could be improved and devote his energies to that task. One such area is teacher salaries. Another area is the inclusion of political indoctrination in national curriculum. Finally, school infrastructure is worthy task to take on. Articles like this one, which serve to make excuses for failings, do nothing to improve education in Cuba.

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