Is Cuba’s Free Educational System in Danger?

Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno

HAVANA TIMES — On Friday, September 21, the weekly “Letters to the Editor” section of the Granma newspaper published a letter that many people found disturbing. This message was signed by a certain N. Paez del Amo, who raised the possibility of the Cuban government eliminating a number of subsidies that up until now have benefitted school-age children and youth.

The nationalization of the entire educational system is customarily presented as one of the achievements of the Cuban Revolution after its triumph in 1959. Until that time the vast majority of Cubans were unable to even think about going on to higher educational levels due to the high costs involved.

The new post-revolutionary concepts involved the provision of all educational needs for free, from nursery school to university studies. All students receive annually — at no cost to them or their families — the necessary materials for each school year. These materials include the free supply of notebooks and supplementary materials; free lunches, snacks and meals at the schools; as well as the provision of uniforms or the sale of these at heavily subsidized prices. Measures such as these allowed for advances that were never before seen in a Third World country.

In the face of the economic crisis, which is a chronic part of our country today, all socioeconomic sectors have experienced severe budget cuts. The Ministry of Education has felt the downsizing of its workforce and facilities.

In his letter, Paez del Amo suggested extending this policy through the shifting — to the pockets of parents — the market costs for school supplies, uniforms, etc., in a move that would be gradually phased in.

Over the weeks that followed, in the same section of that paper, we saw responses appearing from outraged citizens who were in total disagreement with the proposal by Paez del Amo. Those who disagreed with him pointed out that following his prescription would deeply hurt the chances of lower-income people — the majority of Cubans — from having the same access to higher education opportunities as those students from higher income households.

On Friday, October 12, Paez del Amo rejoined the fray to repeat the arguments for those people who found his proposal acceptable, explaining to them the need for the government to economize and to create a greater awareness of the value and the need to care for school supplies, etc.

He also noted that his proposal would have to be accompanied by a corresponding increase in the wages of working parents in order to cope with the rising educational costs. Those people who didn’t have the necessary income levels would be assisted.

Most readers are mere mortals who have no idea of the intricacies of the “Letters to the Editor,” the criteria for selecting those that are published, or even if those who express themselves there are real people.

Notwithstanding, we have had bitter experiences whereby every time the official media begin some kind of debate around these issues, it’s not long before the government ends up implementing the variation that’s most harmful to Jane and John Q. Public.

This was what happened prior to a substantial reduction in allocations of regulated and subsidized food through the rationing system (eliminating certain items in our ration books), as well as restrictions placed on accessibility and support for artistic and sports activities, among other areas life.

Oh…and we never see any benefits come back to us as a result of such cuts, nor are there any increases in our meager paychecks.

The large parts of the controversy missing

There are several associations in Cuba that theoretically are responsible for representing the interests of students at various instructional levels. Yet not in the “Letters to the Editor,” not anywhere else in Granma or in any other newspapers, nor in the media outlets of these very same student organizations have we seen any statement on this matter of cutting educational subsidies.

This position is in sharp contrast with those of other student organizations in other countries, who seem a little more active in defending the interests of their members, as is reflected in the news that we can in fact read in the national press here.

I am unaware of any statement by any official government figure in relation to this particular point, though this could be due to our lack of information. Of course, I no longer have complete confidence that a ministerial figure (or any other senior-level authority) might appear and promise that government-pledged support for education will remain, complete with subsidies and everything else.

Similar promises were made but then couldn’t stand up to harsh reality, as we later saw massive layoffs and steps toward the “rationalization” of schools and health care centers – as the government has now acknowledged.

However, we were able to recognize this gesture (which reflects a little of that awareness we demand) on the part of our political authorities, who are obligated to inform the people of their actions.

Finally, our chronic lack of access to the internet prevents us from looking at the pro-government blogs to see if they have indeed echoed these concerns or to see which side they’ve taken.

I am concerned that the debate reflected in Granma’s “Letters to the Editor” is the prelude to the implementation of neoliberal and capitalist policies in our educational system.

My father is the son of a poor campesino family. Prior to 1959, such people would die of the most trivial diseases because they weren’t able to pay for the services of a doctor. Not to mention education, as his parents (my grandparents) received nothing more than the most basic levels of education.

However, the revolution opened the doors of progress to my father and he earned an engineering degree. This was thanks to social concerns addressed and resolved by the effort at socialist construction that was carried out.

In recent decades, millions of other Cubans have also received advanced professional training, which they subsequently put in the service of society. However, they wouldn’t have been able to get to that stage without the solidarity practiced by that society, which provides the resources necessary to guarantee that everyone has the proper conditions for their studies.

Given all of this, I will make use of this and every means at my disposal to denounce in the strongest words possible those intentions to undermine the values of our society, which aspires to build socialism.

Meanwhile, my wife is calling the Ministry of Education to find out if we need to start saving over the next two years to buy books for our son. For my part, I am going to try to join in with other people of good will to ensure that those values are not reversed to those of the days of my grandparents.

7 thoughts on “Is Cuba’s Free Educational System in Danger?

  • Embargos destroy wealth. There’s lots of socialism on the planet – especially in Europe.

  • For all of you who like to trash one of the good things the Revolutionary government has done to the Cuban people, I highly suggest the book ‘Cuba’s Academic Advantage: Why Students in Cuba Do Better in School’ by Martin Carnoy. In his study he inspects the Cuban educational system. Note – it was published in 2007, a long time from the catastrophe for the Cuban economy that was the fall of the USSR.

  • Grady,

    The Cuban system did not “work.. somewhat during the time when the Soviet Union was helping out”. The Cuban system was massively subsidized by the USSR, and yet it still failed to develop a healthy functioning economy. Socialism destroys wealth. The thousands of crumbling buildings in Havana are testament to this fact.


    You wrote, “teachers …are less and less prepared to teach their students to ¨be like Che¨.

    Maybe that’s the problem. Che was a thief and a killer who promoted a false utopia. The propaganda component of the Cuban education system continues to teach the myths and yet, this the very sort of society the Revolution has built.

  • Advancing societies must produce more than they consume. It is just that simple. Cubans produce very little and as Cuban society ages are consuming more and more. Heretofore this imbalance has been disguised by Venezuelan subsidies and family remittances. With every day, these outside contributions are proving less viable to support the failed regime. Socialism, for all of its noble ideals, fails to account for human selfishness and ambition. As a result, nationalized education suffers. Even through the use of collectives and shared government and private ownership as so eloquently proposed by commentors to this site, the fact is that human beings are at their best when seeking self interests that serve the public good. The education system in Cuba is rife with thievery, embezzlement and racism. Teachers regulary sell exams and openly show favoritism to students whose parents can buy gifts or pay money for services. School lunch resources are sold on the black market. School facilities languish in disrepair because materiels dedicated for maintenance seem to ¨fall off the truck¨ before arriving at the school site. Finally, teachers themselves, because of low salaries and even lower purchasing power, are less and less prepared to teach their students to ¨be like Che¨. Capitalism too, is suffering its own unique problems in delivering a quality education to all and surely does not have all the answers. But one thing is sure, what did work in Cuba 40 years ago is not working today.

  • You make a lot of good points, Griffin. I think it would be good for us to try and use the phrase “free to the end consumer,” instead of just plain “free,” to avoid the confusion of expensively-produced products with truly free items–like the air we breath.

    The reason wages and salaries are so low in Cuba stems apparently from the ancient Marxian principle of state ownership of all the instruments of production–all enterprise, be it schools, nickel production, sugar or hotels. If the state owns all enterprise, this means that it gets 100% of all surplus use-values produced. In other words, everything over what workers need to live on goes into state coffers.

    The state then becomes guardian of most of society’s disposable wealth, and decides what it takes for workers to live. It may reduce wages and salaries to a minimum, and off-set any short-fall by subsidizing prices and issuing ration books.

    This apparently worked somewhat during the time when the Soviet Union was helping out; but when this was no longer the case, and the world economic downturn hit, the gov’t has let prices rise, but not wages.

    It seems to corroborate that, whenever someone else is determining your cut of the pie, your slice will tend to get slimmer and slimmer, so that theirs might get fatter and fatter.

    What is needed in Cuba of course is for workers and the productive small business community to own the instruments of production directly. This would allow those who produce society’s use values to retain more of what is needed to sustain life and raise families. This need not be a return to capitalism, but it would need to entail conversion to a form of socialism that is not state monopoly ownership. Cheers.

  • Education in Cuba is not “free”. That is one of the Revolution’s biggest lies. When the State pays workers less than $20 per month, a fraction of the value of their labour, then the government is in effect taxing them before they even see their pay cheque. When teachers are paid a pittance for their work, then they are in effect subsidizing the educational system with their underpaid labour. The same lie holds for the so-called “free” healthcare.

    These services cost money and that money must come from somewhere, be it taxes, artificially low salaries, subsidized labour, or user fees. You don’t get anything for free.

    The really important question is whether or not the students, and by extension society as a whole, are getting their money’s worth from the educational system. If doctors and engineers are working as taxi drivers and waiters to make ends meet, then it is reasonable to conclude the educational system has a serious problem.

  • I have no evidence to support it, Rogelio, but I don’t believe there’s much chance of Cuban primary schools being degraded by neo-liberal or capitalistic measures. What might be lurking however is an attempt to commodity-ize trade and university education.

    In the US this commodity-ization has reached monstrous proportions, and continues to increase in magnitude. Interest-bearing, higher-education student debt now is larger than total credit card debt (which itself is around one-trillion dollars). (One-trillion dollars, by the way, is $1,000,000,000,000 USD!)

    The scam up here in Capitalism-land is for higher education students to take out massive credit extensions for tuition, books and fees, and living expenses, and then be enserfed for decades by compounding interest charges. It’s a cynical capitalistic feasting upon the young people and their parents, and it’s not pretty.

    Perhaps the best way to head off this sort of thing in Cuba, Rogelio, would be to organize students and parents to pressure the government . . . But I believe this is just what you are already doing . Best wishes.

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