By Fernando Ravsberg

La industria de la educación produjo 1.2 millones de profesionales. Foto: Raquel Pérez Díaz
Cuba’s education industry has produced 1.2 million professionals. Foto: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — Sending thousands of teenagers to teach illiterate people how to read and write was the first stone laid in the foundations of the largest industry created by the Cuban Revolution, Education. Half a century later, 80% of the country’s income comes from the professional services of its citizens.

A seed was planted in those illiterate students that would then sprout in their own children and today many Cubans in their 60s are the first members in their families to have graduated from university. A total of 1.2 million Cubans have attained this academic level in half a century.

Cuba sells medical services and medicines invented by its scientists to dozens of countries worldwide. Its sports trainers work in other countries and Cuban labs in Africa produce animal medicines, biofertilizers and biopesticides for the region.

Art schools have transformed natural talent into virtuosity which radiates in music, ballet, painting, dance and film. The creation of this industry has been fantastic for an island that has very few material resources and less than 12 million inhabitants.

Some people agree with the fact that the government should sell these professional services while others oppose it however, nobody questions the undeniable fact that Cuba’s national economy has survived thanks to this intellectual capacity that has been created across the country, by Cuban teachers.

The Steady Decline

Cuban primary school children.
Cuban primary school children.  Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

However, for more than two decades now, the foundations of this industry have been weakening and if something isn’t done soon, the whole building will collapse. Some 12,000 teachers have left the classroom and are now working in better-paid jobs, searching for an income that will allow them to reach the end of the month.

Over the last three years, 14,000 teachers have graduated and there are 21,000 currently studying; however, the number of those leaving this profession exceeds them. The Minister of Education admits that “the number of those who no longer work with us is greater than the number of those who graduate in our teaching centers.”

The bandages that the government has been applying for the last 25 years with unqualified teachers – whether they’re called budding, temporary or fast-track – is lowering the industry’s standards and sooner or later this will lead to a drop in profits.

A professional’s education doesn’t start at university but at day-care, when their abilities are developed or not. And a solid primary and secondary education is the real groundwork that allows young people to then assimilate knowledge in further education.

The foundation of university education is built in high school. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz
The foundation of university education is built in high school. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Cuba spends millions in training teachers who then leave the classrooms. How much did it cost to educate the 12,000 graduates who now work in other jobs? Maybe it would have been cheaper to pay teachers a better salary to keep them working in education.

The fact that in general Cuban salaries are not nearly enough to cover a person’s basic needs incites widespread theft of products in many sectors so that they can be resold on the black market to make a little extra to balance out the family income.

At schools, there’s nothing that teachers can “get a hold of” to resell and so they live exclusively on the 20 USD they receive per month. On rare occasions, some teachers work out a shady deal with their students’ parents, like those who sold university entrance tests.

However, the majority choose to leave State education and work privately at a tutor “filling” the gaps that unqualified teachers leave behind in the schools. Others completely abandon teaching and work in anything else they can find.

The country has been suffering this hemorrhaging for over two decades now and it’s tried to apply every kind of bandage it can to try and stop the bleeding, but without success. The cure has already been invented, it’s called a decent salary, understood to be that which covers teachers’ basic needs.

Today, 80% of Cuba’s income comes from selling its professional services, the top product created by the education industry.
Today, 80% of Cuba’s income comes from selling its professional services, the top product created by the education industry.  Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

A foreign businessman who sells to the tourist industry recently told me that they’re paying him without delay. That’s because not buying sheets, soft-drinks, meat or towels for hotels would mean sinking a sector that produces billions of USD every year.

Selling professional services, the product which the Cuban education industry produces, brings in to the government three times more revenue than what tourism does and its profits are much greater. In spite of this, teachers receive twenty times less the income of that of a hotel waiter.

In the 60s, the country used every resource it had to convert Cubans, through education, into the country’s greatest treasure. Today it seems that this isn’t the priority for investment, or, maybe, they continue to chase the pipe-dream of achieving quality education without qualified teachers.


7 thoughts on “Education, the Industry that Keeps Cuba Afloat

  • Sorry, I should have been more specific. I was of course only referring to it being the envy of the developing world. Sorry that wasn’t more obvious.

  • Cuban education, at its very best, was among the best among third world countries. However it is an exaggeration to claim it was once the envy of the world. Let’s not over-romanticize a Cuba that never was.

  • Excellent article. Nailed it on all accounts.

    Cuba’s education system was once the envy of the world and its gone down the toilet in the worst way imaginable. You have kids barely out of school themselves showing up to turn on an ancient VCR to watch a tape that’s 20 years out of date to bored kids. That’s called teaching now.

    It’s an incredibly sad of affairs for their higher learning.

  • A decent salary is social justice. Pay the teachers.

  • Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world (UN figures). There is however now a confusion in addressing the purpose of education. Fernando Ravsberg provides a reasonable and succinct analysis of cause of the decline which is occurring – failure to provide even a living income to the qualified professional teachers and of the effect – declining educational standards.
    The root of the problem is that those in control have their minds stuck in out-of-date concepts being much more concerned with the continuation and enforcement of communist ideals, than about addressing Cuba’s future. Members of my family have served abroad in both medical and educational roles. Doing so has enabled them to earn modest incomes, but has necessitated spending prolonged periods away from their children. One who served in the medical sector in Venezuela, now works assisting a friend with a casa particular.
    It is obvious that the regime has abandoned its original drive for education, being more concerned with trying to develop tourism under the numerous GAESA subsidiaries. The cost of such action is the future of Cuba’s children.

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