Cuba’s education system is a source of national pride. One in every 15 people is a college graduate. And even in the most remote Cuban backwater, you’ll come across bright-eyed children laden with satchels, making their way to and from school in pin-neat uniforms colored according to their grades (younger ones wear short-sleeved white shirts, light-blue neckerchiefs, and maroon shorts or mini-skirts; secondary school children wear white shirts, red neckerchiefs, and ocher-yellow long pants or mini-skirts.
Official statistics are contradictory. The Cuban government claims that on the eve of the Revolution, 43 percent of the population was illiterate and half a million Cuban children went without school; however, the U.N. Statistical Yearbook suggests that as much as 80 percent of the population was literate, behind only Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica for the time.
Private and religious schools are forbidden.
In December 1960 the government announced a war on illiteracy. On April 10, 1961, 120,000 literacy workers—brigadistas—spread throughout the island to teach reading and writing to one million illiterates. The government established about 10,000 new classrooms in rural areas. Today literacy is about 99.8 percent, according to UNESCO, exceeding all other Latin American nations (compared to 96 percent for the United States and 99 percent for the United Kingdom).
The statistics also show that the average Cuban child receives about 11.3 years of schooling—the U.S. equivalent is 15.9; that of the U.K. is 16.6. At age 15 (ninth grade), children are evaluated and graded to determine their future: At 16 most secondary students begin two years at a PRE (for pre-universitario), often an escuela del campo where they live in boarding schools attached to plots of arable land. Time is equally divided between study and labor, fulfilling José Martí’s dictum: “In the morning, the pen—but in the afternoon, the plow.” Often, very little work gets done in the fields and youth spend much of their time in dalliance. Children with special talents may opt to attend specialist schools that foster particular skills in art, music, or sports—assuming, of course, that they display the correct behavioral attitudes. Children of the Communist Party and military elite get special treatment.
In 2002, Castro announced a new effort to raise education, with the goal of having one teacher per every 20 students in all elementary classes; installation of computer labs; and a crash course to train “emergency teachers.” In 2004, it claimed to have achieved only 12 students per teacher. However, Cubans complain about low-quality teaching; many teachers are barely out of high school themselves.
Cuban children display inordinate literary and mathematical abilities; a UNESCO study of language and mathematics skills throughout Latin America found that Cuba was way ahead of all other nations (the World Bank’s World Development Indicators data show Cuba as topping virtually all other poor countries in education statistics).
Cuba has four universities. In addition, in 2002 it opened the Universidad de las Ciencias Informáticas (Carretera de San Antonio de los Baños, Km 2.5, Torrens, Municipio Boyeros, Havana, tel. 07/837-2548, www.uci.cu), with 10,000 students arranged into teams to develop commercial software.
As the Brazilian economist Roberto Campos said, statistics are like bikinis: They show what’s important but hide what’s essential. For one, the hyper-educated population is hard pressed to find books and other educational materials. Few schools have a library or gym or laboratory. Schools have been hit by a shortage of teachers lost to tourism jobs (they have been replaced by student teachers). The entire literary panorama is severely proscribed: Only politically acceptable works are allowed. The state often dictates what university students will study. Students of all ages are monitored for their “political soundness,” and their ability to move up into institutions of higher education depends on their demonstrating support for the Revolution (children of “counterrevolutionaries” are often punished along with their parents). Options for adult education are virtually non-existent. And thousands of qualified Cuban school graduates are denied university places reserved for Venezuelans and other “solidarity” students.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition