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