Cuba’s Educational System Needs New Investment

September 3, 2015 |

Fernando Ravsberg*

Classroom with one of the “instant teachers”. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — No one in their right mind would think of ceasing to invest in the business that brings in 80% of their income. In Cuba, the sector that is that profitable is education: everything invested there yields huge dividends and is pulling the nation out of its worst crisis.

We should not let our enthusiasm over the growth of tourism blind us. We would need to bring in more than 10 million tourists every year – and create far more efficient infrastructure – to secure the revenue produced today by the sale of professional services abroad (more than US $ 8 billion).

Those professional, however, do not appear spontaneously, they are the outcome of Cuba’s national education system. That system is a “factory” with unlimited human resources when enough is reinvested to improve its facilities, technology and the wages of its “laborers,” the teachers.

However, some days ago, Minister of Education Ena Elsa Velazquez acknowledged that the current school year had started with a large shortage of teachers, a trend the country has seen for years without developing a solid plan of action to revert the crisis.

For fifty years, Cuba’s educational system was able to offer all children a classroom and teacher. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

Between 2012 and 2013, the number of students to graduate as teachers went down by 2,600 and, this year, only 4,000 people applied to enroll in pedagogy, leaving 15,000 empty spots. Clearly, young Cubans do not consider teaching a good option in life.

For years, the country has applied different formulas to counter the crisis, such as the creation of “intensively trained” teachers. People called these “instant teachers,” because they taught a subject first and studied it afterwards. This had powerful repercussions on the quality of education.

Today, we continue to see such emergency plans. This school year, “we have retired persons who’ve come back to education, teachers in training and students in fourth and fifth year at the Agrarian University,” Daylexis Cabrera, a teacher at the Republica de Argelia school in Batabano, tells us.

Now, Cuba is betting on making teachers out of the students with the poorest academic performance. They set up a mid-level, 2-year course to turn people who couldn’t pass university admittance exams into primary and secondary school teachers.

The Decline of Education

Universities have graduated over one million professionals, but very few opt for careers in education. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

young man who had been a secondary school teacher until three years ago tells us he quit teaching because working conditions are awful. “I would work from 7:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon for a monthly salary of 590 Cuban pesos,” the equivalent of US $25.

“I would teach 7 classes and even had to go on Saturdays, sometimes just to hear the principal give us some pointless political spiel. Everything’s so poorly organized that one doesn’t have time to prepare for classes. Sometimes, you don’t even have time to properly correct exams,” he tells us.

Today, he earns considerably more giving private lessons that prepare students for university admittance exams. Ironically, he now works to plug up the holes in the system created by the loss of teachers.

The consequences of the crisis will also be social. If public education is unable to prepare students adequately, only those with the money to pay for private lessons will be able to enroll in university, in violation of the principle that everyone should have the same opportunities.

Cuba’s educational system has even been able to guarantee schools for those with special learning needs. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

The solution appears to be to raise the salaries and improve the living conditions of educators. It’s already being implemented in the public health sector, where wages have been raised and several proposed measures would give medical professionals privileged access to housing, automobiles, the Internet and contracts, among other things.

Cuba’s educational project began in the 1960s, when all Cubans were taught to read and write. For fifty years, the country guaranteed 100 % of children, including tens of thousands of disabled individuals and others with special educational needs, a classroom and teacher.

Betting on accessible, quality education meant spending an enormous part of the State budget, but it ultimately allowed universities to graduate over 1 million professionals whose work abroad now sustains Cuba’s economy.

Despite these achievements, this nationwide effort and the entirety of this investment could well vanish into thin air if the country does not adopt measures that will guarantee the creation and maintenance of a base of educators who have the professionalism, energy and maturity needed to educate the new generations.

The future of its children, the national economy and Cuban culture depends on the accessibility and quality of education. To lose the nation’s main source of income by not investing enough in teachers would be tantamount to suicide.

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  • Carlyle MacDuff

    Three members of our Cuban family all university graduates, are currently working in other countries as teachers. They do so to enable them to support their families – all three have children and would prefer to live at home to be teaching in Cuba, but the earnings are pitifully low.
    A teacher with 25 years experience receives the equivalent of $1 per day. Those who have applied themselves as post-graduates earn an extra $3.80 per month. If subsequently they achieve a Doctorate, they receive an extra $6 per month.
    For the communist Castro family regime, qualified teachers are a commodity and that commodity brings more money into the regime’s coffers by working overseas where although paid more, the larger portion of receipts from the host country ends up in the regimes coffers.
    Cuba’s own children are only a secondary consideration, revenue from overseas comes first.

    • bjmack

      Amazing Carlyle! Don’t get that info from CNN

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      Just a brief addition. In referring to: “those who have applied themselves as post-graduates” I should have clarified that I was referring to those with Masters degrees.
      So, a teacher with a Masters degree receives an additional $3.80 per month.

    • Terry Downey

      Carlyle, it doesn’t matter how many times you blurt the word communist or regime…those words are really quite immaterial. The fact of the matter is, the Cuban government currently has very limited options to raise the money needed to support their social programs, infrastructure, housing, and education. You make it sound as if all of the money that is raised by sending it’s citizens abroad is embezzled to line the pockets of the Castros. Nothing could be further from the truth. The contribution made by farming out Cuba’s well educated professionals for the hard currency infusion they earn abroad is their sacrifice for the greater good of the entire country. It’s just another tool in the government’s arsenal to help maintain and insure the continued sovereignty of their nation in the face of the continued war on Cuba. In the future, post economic embargo, I have no doubts that manufacturing for export to the US will play a much larger role in supporting the interests and prosperity of the Cuban people. But of course, we all have to continue to hurry up and wait for that.

      • Moses Patterson

        You fail to see the problem. Put simply, if the Castros allowed the professionals whom they have “farmed out” to keep the majority of their earnings, the Cuban economy would be better off today rather than wait for that magical day in the future you mentioned. Instead, when Brazil pays Cuba $4000 per month per Cuban doctor working in Brazil, the individual doctor earns less than $300. If the actual pockets of the Castros are not being lined, the government pockets of the Castros sure are! When people left in charge of their own money, it circulates more efficiently in their economy. We know high “taxes” are less efficient than high incomes to get any economy moving. The Castros don’t care about efficiency. For the Castros, it is about control.

        • Terry Downey

          Moses, it’s your US government that is holding up the future of Cuba’s social development, economic progress, and prosperity. You still don’t get it. US government policy is to a larger extent, part of the problem…not part of the solution. And while your government’s repression persists, it’s impossible to criticize, with any kind of credibility, the situation in Cuba that your government helped to create.

          • Moses Patterson

            I understand your point and I simply disagree. I assert that the Castros should engage sound economic principles regarding of the external forces they face. The embargo has been the blanket excuse for everything that has failed in Cuba. Centralized planning, two currencies, government corruption are all self-imposed challenges and therefore self-corrected. Your argument that the embargo should be lifted before the Castros can be held accountable is just prolonging the pain unnecessarily.

          • Informed Consent

            So let me get this straight. Cubas egalitarian socialist prosperity depends on selfish, inhuman Capitalist America. ….oh the irony!

      • Carlyle MacDuff

        Terry, the whole wide world has been a potential market for Cuban manufacturing and the regime has failed to address it! Where is the production you imagine to come from? Your penultimate sentence is pie in the sky thinking.
        How suddenly will the Socialismo system of Cuba start to produce? Its history is a litany of incompetence and failure. What is that system going to produce to export? To date it has required ever increasing volumes of imports – from food, to bicycles, to pots and pans – but suddenly it will start to produce? Since the time of the revolution, Cuba has required a sugar daddy – and still does. What happens when Maduro goes?

  • N.J. Marti

    At $8 billion a year in overseas outsourcing of professionals, they should be able to pay these teachers. Cut the fat at the bloated state enterprises.

  • Carlyle MacDuff

    Its simple bjmack, I am married (happily) to a Cuban and our home is in Cuba where I spend most of my time. I have a lengthy spell in Canada each year when I am able to contribute to these pages. My wife joins me in Canada for her summer vacation which this year was extended to over two and a half months. Through marriage I am related to 67 Cubans. Cuba’s social structure and culture is based upon the strength of ‘la familia’.
    To be fair to the free world’s media including CNN they have difficulty in getting permission to access Cuba and to make any in depth reports and there is consequently a shortage of hard fact.
    Although it is evident that I favour the capitalist system and regard it as better than that of socialism, I am a realist. For example, national social medical systems were originally a socialist concept – with the first being introduced in the UK in 1948 by a Labour Party government with the Minister of Health being Aneurin Bevan originally a Welsh coal miner. Many other countries some of which have never had socialist governments – Canada for example – subsequently adopted similar systems. The Castros did not come in to power in Cuba until 1959, so their adoption of social medicine was quite late.
    Because I have the privilege of spending so much time in Cuba, I am considered locally to be a member of the community and am treated as such. I know the people who serve in the local military owned shops, most days I have a coffee at one of the El Rapido cafes where the price is 25 cents (quarter of a CUC as they don’t accept pesos. Like most Cubans, I walk, not having the luxury of a car or a bicycle – although I confess to using bici-taxis when moving heavy articles. I do the daily “shopping” buying from a combination of street vendors and government shops. When I write here about leaking water pipes or crumbling infrastructure, it is not a consequence of reading, but of the reality I experience daily.
    When I refer to Cuban politicians and what they say at Congresses or the so-called parliament, it is because I watch and listen to them on Cuban TV. For example I watched and listened to Marino Murillo describing his new economic policy – which is now the current one! I again, know the reality and am not dependent upon second hand news reports. When I write of what Fidel Castro said in Granma about socialism, I do so having read it!
    So now you will understand why I so readily dismiss some of the opinions expressed in these pages and why I no longer respond to Mr. John Goodrich who knows naught of Cuba except that which he has gleaned from reading as he has never been to Cuba. It is why I expressed such contempt for Gomezz – he with the expertise upon anal cleansing, because he as an obviously left hand amigo of the Castro family regime, spoke of how he could if he ever returned to live in Cuba, could afford a nice house, a car (remember that in Cuba a four year old Peugeot cost $85,000) a servant and have the Internet.
    I disagree usually with folks like dani and Terry Downey, but respect their right to disagree with me. However I hope that they understand that I am reflecting the views of Cubans, not just my own.
    So what motivates me? Oddly and in particular being Godfather to a four year old girl who is my niece.. I see daily the conditions under which her parents live and struggle to maintain a decent life for themselves and their two children. I live in hope that the system which holds power and control over them and which is the only one they have known, will not extend its evil over the whole life of that four year old child, but that it will rot from within as did the communist system of the USSR and that my God-child will be able to experience the freedom which is the privilege of those of us who live in the free democratic societies – with all the faults endlessly listed by proponents of totalitarianism.
    I’ve rattled on a bit, but thought I would explain why I have deep knowledge of the reality of life in Cuba for Cubans.

    • bjmack

      Carlyle, I was going to request you start a blog but hats off to Circles Robinson for allowing commentators long, IMO, eloquent responses.
      Regarding other responders, John Goodrich might be tough but he’s not a phony and tells it the way he sees it. Some of the others, from both sides,
      are difficult as well but that’s the world. Regarding Bjmack, I’m no sweetheart either. So much to absorb with your, as an Irishman and not to be offensive, story telling, so thanks much and still would appreciate you considerate writing a memoir as to what you’re seeing and have experienced in Cuba. Incredibly brilliant!
      Gracias!

      • Carlyle MacDuff

        I recognise bjmack the privilege I have as a foreigner of living in Cuba as a member of a Cuban family and community. I can confess that when there and unable to access the Internet for news of what is happening in the wide free world, I have resorted to recording the day by day life of Cubans and the structure of their society. Whether when complete, I am able to find a publisher is a key question.
        I might add jokingly that if I do, Mr. John Goodrich will pen a rebuttal – based naturally upon his own experiences of Cuba.
        I have never hidden my view that a revolution in Cuba was necessary, the removal of dictatorships is invariably justified. Equally I believe that if following some five to seven years of reconstructing the political process in Cuba, Fidel Castro had introduced free open elections to enable his fellow countrymen (and women) the opportunity to determine the future of THEIR country, he would have been recognized by the world and would have shared an honoured place in history with Ghandi and Mandela.
        The sad thing is that he chose otherwise. In his conceit he decided that he knew best and adopted communism becoming a dictator himself, the very thing that he sought originally to overthrow himself.
        My experiences and views are based upon the consequences of the Castro family regime’s rule. The type of society that has resulted – where the walls have ears! Mr. John Goodrich refers frequently to the written works of others in support of his theories and advises we others to read the same works. I will only refer to one book in response. That of an ardent Socialist who took part in the revolutionary war in Spain against a dictator – Franco! The book is 1984 and the author is the late George Orwell. BIG BROTHER is watching in Cuba.

        • bjmack

          Well, as a one year old, and obviously can’t remember, my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He lived to be 88 and my mother attributed it to prayer.
          I’m not in that category but I like the Pope, he seems genuine, sincere and cognizant of Cuba’s problems so his journey to Cuba could be the miracle
          that is so much needed at this time. Thanks again Carlyle for your hands on reporting!

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            As you obviously were interested in the information about “salary” rates, I should add that a teacher appointed as a school deputy director, receives an extra $1.20 per month.

          • bjmack

            Interesting item I just read that 30% of those entering the work force in Cuba are doing so within the private sector.
            Also, AirBnB is most definitely making a few in Cuba very well off. I’m sure this isn’t affecting your neck of the woods Carlye but it’s a start. I mean Appalachia, USA, took a while to get some trickle down vs. NYC way back when.

          • Carlyle MacDuff

            I guess that they are pedalling bici-taxis or cutting hair, as there are few private sector businesses allowed to have more than one employee. You are correct in indicating indirectly that Havana is used to illustrate “progress” in Cuba and the rest of the country slowly trails along behind it.

  • bjmack

    As someone who hasn’t been to Cuba and obviously not Cuban, an outsider, what do you think is really going on behind the curtain Carlye? My instinct is Bruno Rodriguez is by far the most well rounded of the top 20. What’s your take on the situation as you see it?

    • Carlyle MacDuff

      I agree with you that Bruno Rodriguez appears to be the more rational and best public face of the three potential Cuban Government contenders. Marino Muriillo Jorge is a qualified (by education) economist and First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is a toe the line communist – hence being the choice of Raul Castro.
      My take remains that 2018 is the key year when Raul assuming he is alive, steps down and Venezuela rejects Maduro and so potentially ceases to act as an economic support.
      Politics is about POWER and the economic power is not in the plump hands of the Murillo on behalf of the Government, but in those of the Castro family regime.
      The question is in my view whether Alejandro Espin Castro (actually in Spanish terms it ought to be Alejandro Castro Espin) and his brother-in-law General Luis Alberto Rodriguez will meekly step aside, or seek to control. Currently, theirs is the control, holding those key positions of Head of Security and Head of GAESA
      History -world wide – shows that the military are the key. Cuba has a very large military for its size (more than Canada) and since the death of Camilo Cienfuegos who was second only to Fidel (which meant that Raul was no. 3 and Che No. 4 – a fact which almost ensured the eradication of Camilo as an anti-communist along with Huber Matos) has been controlled by Raul, as Minister and as the most senior General.
      Alejandro is little known publicly but his time spent in Russia with the former KGB and with Vladimir Putin will have provided him with plenty of knowledge about power grabbing.
      The current conception promoted by the free media as a consequence of the renewal of diplomatic relations with the US that major change is afoot in Cuba is in my view misleading. Raul Castro Ruz is a dedicated communist. As long ago as 1953, he visited the Soviet Bloc nations and incidentally met Nikolai Leonov who following the revolution became the KGB man in Havana. Raul is ruthless – he oversaw the summary execution in Santiago de Cuba of soldiers loyal to Batista – as many as 78 in one day, and was the driving force behind the prosecution of Matos and probably the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos. So you may understand now the link with son Alejandro going to Russia.
      How will he potential fracas be resolved – nobody knows, but the potential for a big bust-up is there. Whoever wins, there is little chance of the people of Cuba having any say. Who wants to choose between the frying pan and the fire? Somehow the system has to rot from within -like the USSR.