How Primary School Hours Trap Parents in Cuba

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Photo: Irina Echarry
Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — A few days ago, I wrote an email to a friend of mine about how bothersome it is to keep your kids in school here in Cuba, in spite of it being free.  Suddenly, I got the idea of writing about this subject and I discovered that there is a lot to talk about, but I would like to put emphasis on the responsibility of having to take them and bring them home. I believe that this merits an analysis and it would be good to share our experiences.

In Cuba, “the double session”, that is to say children go both in the morning and the afternoon, has been put into place in primary education. This is a more viable option in schools that operate as a semi-boarding school, where they give children and teachers lunch and snacks. In order to enrol in these schools, both parents must work for the State. However, as almost always happens in this country, “the demand still hasn’t been met”; and to top this off, it doesn’t include independent workers, who already represent a significant minority of our country’s active workforce.

The rest of Cuban schools, over 90% more or less, have this double session, but they don’t give lunch and children have to go home at midday and then go back to school promptly. That’s four trips a day in total. The Cuban sun is a burning bonfire and moving children around at 12:30 PM and then again at 2:30 PM, on foot or by bike, is a torture similar to that which slaves had to endure out in colonial sugar plantations.

Here, public transport is superlatively insufficient, when it’s not non-existent; on the other hand, nearly nobody has a car and the people who do, don’t use it for this. At this time of the day, they are using it as a taxi and with fuel as expensive as it is, only a select few can give themselves the luxury of using their cars regularly. In this country, a car is rarely exclusively used as a personal mode of transport; it’s almost always a business. On the contrary, you wouldn’t be able to keep it running. Everybody walks with their kids on their back, on the burning pavement in the best of cases, when it’s not a slope full of holes which flood with rain.

The least bothersome trip is the one in the morning, but at 4:30 PM, the sun is still high up in the sky. Everyday, I do this: four trips to school. I watch groups of parents, grandparents or people responsible who do the same and I think about two things: first of all, that this really is slavery having to do this for the seven years that primary school lasts; secondly, that no country can make progress when people have to invest so much time in banalities.

I say “banalities” but I’m not referring to our children’s education. Of course I’m not. But to the fact that we use not just our children’s and teachers’ time, but also parents’ time for this noble purpose, in such a consuming manner. Who can be productive like this? These four journeys complicate anybody’s day, without having the conditions to do so, and keeps them stressed all day. It’s an inevitably great responsibility that doesn’t involve just a few hundred people, but hundreds of thousands of people. The person who invented the “double session” in this country must have had his brain burning.

Surely it’s another national sacrifice in pursuit of reflecting better statistics that show off our false well-being and development in the face of the world and surely the “idiots” who designed it this way move around in modern cars, have their kids in semi-boarding schools and their drivers are responsible for doing this so they are never stressed.

I personally feel enslaved by this education model and the way it’s been organized. I do this everyday for my children, but I don’t stop thinking about this ridiculous and unnecessary waste of time. If we were a normal country, we would pay for a school transport service which would come to our front door; and if the school can’t feed our children, I’m sure somebody would offer this service with quality guarantees for an “accessible” price which we could all pay.

How will our beautiful Cuba make progress with so much time lost unnecessarily in school trips, lines, bureacracy and the poor functioning of everything? All you have to do is stand in front of a Cuban school at midday, while we parents wait for the bell to ring: comments are heated. Some are nervous because of the pressure cooker they’ve left on the stove, others because they’ve escaped a few minutes from work, others because they don’t have an umbrella and the sun is burning them. However, the most common phrase heard is: “this isn’t easy, nobody should have to put up with this.”

There’s no doubt about it, the most difficult thing about having children in our country isn’t how expensive and how hard everything is, or the work they give us when they’re still small babies and they depend entirely on us; none of this compares to when they have to go to school, when these four daily trips to school come about, under our tropical sun, for seven long years.

Whoever hasn’t experienced this can say what they want, but for me, who suffers this on a daily basis, this is the most eloquent forms of what I would call “new slavery in Cuba”, which doesn’t stem from our salary problem and the situation of our working class, but which undoubtedly has many roots.



12 thoughts on “How Primary School Hours Trap Parents in Cuba

  • Pack a lunch

    (Like all the bussed kids did)

  • As I thought the 95% tax is based on faulty logic. I’m guessing you are mixing up the per capita GDP with GDP per person parity. You’ll need to provide more detail. Secondly, I have already explained this. If a private contracting agency anywhere charges another company for providing a workforce on a per employee basis, they don’t do it for free. They always take a cut of 25% or more. And in Cuba the government does a lot more on running the hotel than simply providing the workforce. If the foreign company directly hired the employees do you think they would be paying 95% more than the average wage. Also as you must realize the tourist hotels are a lot more profitable. As you know a lot of other sectors of the economy are not that profitable so the average tax can’t be based on this sector. I wouldn’t do things as they are in Cuba if I was in charge, but facts are important

    If you want to try and argue that 95% tax goes to run state security then you need to provide evidence that shows that more is spent on this sector than similar countries. I don’t have the figures, but the army for example isn’t large and was cut drastically along with the bureaucracy during the special period.

    Same with Mariela’s swimming pool. From someone like myself who believes in greater equality I find this appalling and hypocritical, but again if you want to argue that Cubans are overtaxed in order to pay for the rich then you need to provide evidence that shows that this is more than what the average person of their status in other countries would get. Otherwise it is just blather. Everyone knows that inequality is increasing in Cuba, but as a Conservative you must be jumping for joy. That is what you’ve always wanted.

  • Dani, of course I know Cubans are not paid in dollars, but in CUPs, or Cuban pesos. The average salary is equivalent to $20, at the exchange rate.

    The word “free” is inaccurate. The semantics are important, because supporters of the Castro regime are always bleating on about how the Cuban people get “free education” and “free healthcare”. That’s a fraud. Not only do they pay for it when the government takes a huge cut of their earnings, the government also takes away the rights to free speech, free association, freedom of religion, labour freedom, economic freedom & etc.

    That’s some lousy bargain.

    The 95% tax rate is an estimation arrived at by considering the Per Capita GDP. Also, the fee which foreign employers pay to the Cuban govt for providing hotel employees, which is $400 per month, per employee. The gov’t keeps 95% of that fee and pays the workers $20/ month (in Cuban Pesos). ($20 is 5% of $400, hence the 95% tax rate).

    The Cuban people get back some of the economic value of their labour in the form of rationed food, and government services such as education. But like the rations, the education they receive is of poor quality.

    The revenue from the effectively 95% tax rate goes into the general government account. I did not say it was earmarked for the education system only. In fact, the Cuban government spends that money on many important things, including the salaries of their repressive state security apparatus, and the repairs to Mariela Castro’s swimming pool: http://www.martinoticias.com/a/en-medio-huracan-mariela-castro-remodela-mansion/131023.html

  • One parent working can live much better in Canada than both parents working in Cuba today. I agree in Canada many large Companies like Walmart and Tim hortan”s pay less than a living wage. The shortfall is made up by the government child tax credit and living in basement apartments by families and people with(out) children living in cars .Many(single moms) people in Canada are forced the break the current laws of leaving children unsupervised as they can not afford after school day care or a baby sitter and have children as young as 5 home alone while they work. When I went to school in a small town in Rural Ontario every junior class room had a loaf of bread, apples and or oranges and a jar of peanut butter and a grade 8 girl was given the job of making up something to eat for the few young kids under 10 who did not always bring a lunch to school. The current system in Cuba is broken . We need to be very careful that we not have something worse than Mexico today

  • I could point out the catalogue of errors in your comments. You have probably never been to Cuba otherwise you would know that Cubans are not paid in dollars and since the vast majority of recipients of education are children they don’t have a salary that could be taxed. Just pointing out your kind of argument.

    But more seriously, the term “free” is perfectly applicable to this situation in the same way that Starbucks provide “free” samples of their latest products. But as even an orphan has access to education it can be considered “free” but everyone knows that resources to pay for it come from somewhere. Its a semantic argument that hasn’t much going for it.

    The figure of 95% tax rate. This has been bandied about, but I would like to know how that is being calculated. Everyone knows that the education system is cash-strapped and struggling even though it is a flagship of the regime. If education had the benefit of 95% of income, I don’t think it would be struggling.

  • Osmel, in most of the so-called democratic countries it is necessary for both parents to work full time jobs to earn the money they need to send their children to school. While the parents are “enslaved” by this system, the schools are full of “latchkey” children who come home each afternoon to empty houses. If you don’t want the responsibilities associated with parenting, then perhaps answer is to not have children – something the Cuban medical system is very happy to help you with at little or no cost.

  • Thank you, I re-read the piece.

    And Margaret made a good point in her comment.

  • Good point. We made a change.

  • I lived in Cuba for eleven years and travel frequently there. I think I understand something of the daily difficulties faced by many on the Island. I would not pretend that taking public transportation four times a day to bring one’s children to and from school is easy. But I am shocked at this article’s headline: “A New Wave of Slavery in Cuba.” If this headline was posted by the article’s writer, she has no understanding of what the word slavery even means. Using the word to describe a daily hardship is ludicrous. And if it was posted by Havana Times, I find it even more lacking in perspective.

  • Everything in life comes with hidden costs and Cuban Education is no different! Mr Castro and your band of criminals stop hoodwinking the Cuban people!

  • Griffin, I don’t think you understood the article. Kids in Cuba are going to a double session. The article is about the difficulty for parents in the majority of the schools where they have to go home for lunch and then return to classes.

  • Once again, it must be pointed out, education in Cuba is NOT FREE. Cuban’s pay for it with the huge slice the Cuban state takes off their earning before they are paid their salary. The average take-home pay of $20/month salary is equivalent to paying 95% tax rate. Cuban’s pay a hell of a lot for schools and they are not getting much for it.

    In Canada, we are not so naive to think education is “free”. We understand the education system is funded by government and that the government gets the money from the taxes we pay. The result is the cost of education is shared by everybody.

    I am surprised to learn that most school children in Cuba only go to a single session per day (morning). In Canada, Kindergarten is half-day. From then on, from grade 1 to 12, school for all children is full day, from 9 AM to 3 or 4PM.

    At most schools in Canada, the children bring a packed lunch and eat at school in a lunch room, or in their classroom or in the gymnasium. Most high schools have a cafeteria where meals are cooked & served, at a reasonable cost.

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