“In order to understand the Cuban education system, it is necessary to examine both its foundations and the reality of education under the US blockade.”
By Logan Williams, NEU and Cuba Solidarity activist
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic the issue of education within Britain has come to the forefront of the British consciousness from the issue of examinations and assessment to lockdown learning and, the role of Education as a vital tool to overcome child poverty highlighted by Marcus Rashford’s excellent campaigning.
The emergence of these issues has led educators and trade unionists across Britain to examine alternative forms of Education for post-covid British Education from across the globe and most notably through an examination of the Cuban education system. The merits of the Cuban system are plain to see through the country having one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America and, a truly comprehensive system funded by the Cuban government. In order to understand the Cuban education system, it is necessary to examine both its foundations and the reality of education under the US blockade.
The foundations of the alternative.
In the centuries preceding the Cuban Revolution of 1959, education in Cuba was not prioritised by Colonial or newly independent governments. At the turn of the nineteenth century only three fifths of the Cuban population were literate with around fifty percent of white males being literate and around twenty eight percent of Black males being literate respectively. These conditions only worsened with the rise of gangster control of Cuba with figures such as Al Capone and Meyer Lansky opening casinos and, prostitution rings. The rise in political power of these figures saw the education of the rural and working classes fall by the way side, the collapse in literacy rates and, the rise in unemployment of teachers to ten thousand professionals out of work at its peak.
As a result of this neglect throughout the early to mid-twentieth century the Cuban revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro prioritised the re-introduction of educating the rural and working classes largely due to the movements ideological founder Jose Marti, who argued that “being educated is the only way to be free”. The prioritisation of Education within the liberated zones of control throughout the Cuban revolutionary period saw revolutionaries such as Asela de los Santos and Vilma Espin aid in the setting up of over four hundred schools for children and adult revolutionaries alike to follow in Marti’s ideals.
Despite the material and international difficulties faced by the revolutionary government of Cuba upon it taking power in 1959 the dedication to Education as a bedrock of the formulation of a truly independent and progressive Cuba never wavered. Within two years of taking power Fidel launched a nationwide literacy campaign in 1961. The process of the National Literacy campaign began in September 1960 when Fidel addressed the UN in New York where he stated “during the next year our people intend to fight the great battle of illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every single inhabitant of the country to read and write… Cuba will be the first country of America which, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have one person who remains illiterate”.
Shortly after Fidel’s speech, a call was released across Cuba for volunteer literacy teachers which resulted in 100,000 volunteers in four months. Most of these volunteer teachers were between the ages of ten and nineteen from the inner cities of Havana but, a volunteer of the age of 9 was registered formally. Each of these volunteers would be trained for eight to ten days in Cuba’s revolutionary form of pedagogy as well as, how to live in a rural community. Life for these volunteers was not easy, despite the holiday camp feel of the training program, with many being targeted for harassment or killed by counter-revolutionary gangs in rural areas.
As a result of this program over a million Cuban adults were taught to read and write by the end of 1961, many of which went on to engage either in further or higher education or in the provision of further schemes in later years. Thus, showing the truly liberatory power of education to engage and better the lives of the many.
Education under the Blockade.
From the 1980’s the structure of Cuba’s comprehensive system of education had begun to take shape with the construction of a broad and balanced inclusive curriculum centred around the words of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara “to build communism it is necessary, simultaneous with the new material foundations, to build the new man” fit for the twenty first century. The emphasis on socialist pedagogy as the guiding line of the curriculum has seen the prioritisation of music, singing and dance alongside more traditionalist subjects to create rounded adults.
Despite, the heavy restrictions placed onto the Cuban people as part of the 60 year long economic and material blockade placed onto the people of Cuba by the US Government, which was only intensified by the Trump Administration to the extent that pens, pencils and paper are scarce even within schools. The Cuban government despite its material hardships has maintained Education as being free for all students up to and including higher educations at Cuba’s world-renowned medical schools.
The Government has chosen to maintain this both due to its ideological bedrock of education as the key to creating a liberated society but, also due to the role of its teaching trade union, the SNTECD, which holds seats in the Cuban parliament and within the council of directors of Education. Cuban Education trade unionists see these roles as key to their ownership of the curriculum as can be seen in the words of former SNTECD General Secretary Ismael Drullet Perez who told a NUT delegation in 2018 “If I am not involved in developing an education programme where is my commitment to implement it”.
The crucial role of Cuba’s education workers union in developing and implementing its curriculum is in stark contrast to most other countries where curriculum changes are used as a political football with little input from the education workers themselves.
It is logical therefore for British educators, progressives, socialists and, trade unionists alike to seek to learn lessons from the Cuban education system due to its role in defeating illiteracy and, tackling poverty throughout the Cuban population. We must continue to build support for the people of Cuba and opposition to the cruel blockade by building and supporting the Cuba Solidarity Campaign as well as, urging our trade union branches to support initiatives such as the National Education Union’s Viva La Educacion campaign.
- Logan Williams is an activist for the NEU and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, and a volunteer for Arise: A Festival for Labour’s Left Ideas.