Can education be saved here in Cuba?

By Frank Simon


HAVANA TIMES — “Don’t go thinking I’m going to be here earning 50 Cuban pesos per day at a restaurant, that’s exactly what I told my family when I finished my pre-university course, don’t think I’m going to go and study to earn 500 pesos (20 USD) or anything similar as a professional,” that’s what 19-year-old Sara blurted out, beautiful like her age, but with a dark vision of the future.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to be, but she doesn’t want to be what she is. She was number 15 in her high school, out of 200 kids, and she was number 30 in her pre-university course, out of about the same number. “I could apply for medicine, for example, but it’s not worth so much effort,” she tells me.

“Women like Sara think like that since 10th grade and they normally choose men that are over 40 as husbands, it’s a process that begins in high school. Because they are beautiful, they don’t have to do anything but hook on to an older man with money or a foreigner,” Vladimir stated, in 11th grade of pre-university.

It distresses him, because even with his parents’ help, it only just about covers his afternoon snack, so he can’t aspire to fix any girl he like’s problems. “Degrees come and there’s too many, because very few people want them. A young person traveling as a “mule” (clothes smuggler) to Panama is more famous than a doctor or lawyer; you can imagine that discipline in schools is indifference.”


We spoke to Julio, a PhD in Sociology and university professor, about the subject. According to him, the use of the term “inverted pyramid” is a government euphemism, to minimize such a complex problem. “In my opinion, maintaining the old-fashioned and dogmatic curriculum plus the poor training of teaching assistants, they eroded the Cuban education system deliberately, because it’s better to rule over functional illiterates. Educating people without intellect, without any organization skills or political astuteness, that’s why I’m talking to you about social engineering.”

In less academic and pragmatic terms, Julio confesses: “there’s an official discourse on the one hand which calls to join the never-ending battle, and a surreptitious one that tells you to leave, that there isn’t a future for anyone here, except for the children and grandchildren of the ruling military elite.”

Could anybody save Cuba’s education system? “No,” Menendez, a high school principal tells me; “there’s no chance, not with the parents or the students. This school used to be the best in the province but today, it’s a reformatory school for pre-delinquents.

Our high school principal adds: “primary school doesn’t teach the curriculum, so when they come here, they have a poor base, without having met third or second grade objectives, so their main skill, i.e. thinking for themselves, will be affected for the rest of their lives. We are creating cavemen.”


Menendez and Julio agree that maybe it is social engineering and a “new man” who never thinks, or gets their hopes up, who knows that they need to lie in order to live a better life while trying to escape jail. “Anyone who has read Michel Foucault, the French philosopher from the second half of the past century, knows that he put social engineering forward as one of the ways to control minds and for governments to repress the masses, so that you give up your self-autonomy from a young age and take on the role of victim which disempowers you,” Julio added. 

Julio narrows it down for us: “If the Cuban system is playing with fire, if the little education divides thought and action, waves of uncontrollable violence could appear at any time, like the Arab Spring, when individual survival reaches a certain limit.”

3 thoughts on “Can education be saved here in Cuba?

  • The article reflects reality. As my wife holds a not insignificant role in education and I am in regular contact with students, I can vouch for the accuracy of Frank Simon’s comments. To sit in ones own home and listen to two pre-university school students debating alternatives is depressing. One keen to study and progress to university and take professional qualifications and the other saying: “Why bother, I can earn more working the street.”
    Very recently in discussion with a long experienced teacher, he said to me that endeavoring to instill initiative in students is becoming increasingly difficult as they see no benefit in academic pursuit unless they manage to emigrate. As he put it: “There is only hope for those who manage to leave.”

  • Your article swirls around in my head and heart. I just returned from 3 months in central Cuba, living with dear friends. It was my 18th trip since 1995. I am a sociologist and theologian, trying to study how Cuban life got to be as it is now. This article and the interview with the the professor of sociology has really helped me, although saddened me profoundly. Thank you for your honesty and courage, in spite of the risks and push-back.

  • And yet Castro sycophants continue to regurgitate statistics regarding literacy rates and classroom size. Crumbling facilities and fewer, mostly poorly-prepared teachers belie the ugly truth. Cuban education sucks!

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