by Veronica Vega (Amrit)
HAVANA TIMES — Readers who know me have already been saturated with my stories about the problems of education in Cuba. I regret having to bring up that same theme again, and I especially regret this inertia that we’ve somehow all helped to create out our own remiss.
This inertia has been produced by generations of people who have been molded into complying with a rigid canon such that many feel suffocated. I know that to stand up and protest has a very high price – but it’s worth it.
For those readers who have not followed my trail, I should explain that this interview is a continuation of the partial victory won against with the Ministry of Education in a meeting that I referred to in my article “Cuba’s Schools and a Battle Over Hair.”
In that post I mention Lourdes Rojas, a friend I met when my son and hers joined forces in high school around in an unusual cause that engaged them in a long battle: their right to wear their hair long.
Her son, Sebastian, despite winning an “exemption” to be able to enter the school with his flowing hair, got only a “1” (poor) in his evaluation by FEEM (the Federation of Cuban High School Students) because teachers felt that the length of his hair affected the correct appearance of his uniform. Arbitrarily, my son didn’t get that same rating.
By chance I ran into Lourdes on the street, where she told me that she had had to go to a second meeting, this time not only with representatives of the Ministry of Education but also with ones from the National Assembly of Popular Power (the Cuban parliament).
The cause: A letter she had written to the education ministry, which having failed to respond within the established statutory period (60 days), sent representatives of that body to meet with her.
In her own words, in that letter she wasn’t arguing about her child’s right to have long hair; rather, she was questioning the requirement of the uniform itself.
The following is a summary of the conversation I had with Lourdes:
HT: What was the outcome of that second meeting?
Lourdes: They told Albert (Sebastian’s father) and me that there was going to be a discussion and they were then going to give “the response.”
Not “a” response but “the” response.
HT: A response that wasn’t going to be affected by the discussion?
Lourdes: Yes, a response they had already prepared. They pulled out the resolution according to which the minister of Education is empowered to issue regulations and resolutions, a right that every minister has. So I asked them if the minister of Education has the right to make an exception to the constitution, something that even the People’s Assembly (parliament) can’t do.
Constitutional amendments can be made, and that’s in the last chapter of the constitution itself, provided this doesn’t affect the first three articles relating to fundamental rights and duties of citizens, but to change one of those items requires the calling of a plebiscite.
HT: What was their response?
Lourdes: (She smiled) They again said that they would have to take the matter higher up to give us the response. Later Alberto and I went to the prosecutor’s office to clarify that particular point. The prosecutor who attended to us told us this struggle that we were waging was very interesting and was also something necessary.
He confirmed to us that in legal terms we were right: The minister has no authority to establish that the right to education is subordinate to the wearing of a uniform.
HT: You told me that you two had also met with FEEM.
Lourdes: Yes, because we were told that FEEM had approved the school rules. We had trouble finding their offices since they didn’t have a sign. I told them: “You aren’t even in the phone book, I thought FEEM had ceased to exist.”
HT: Were the people who you met with adults?
Lourdes: I thought they would be adults, but — incredibly — we were first attended to by an 18-year-old boy, and later a girl, both members of the National Secretariat of FEEM. This same girl had told me over the phone that they had approved the school rules because it was something institutionalized, not because they agreed with him.
HT: Does FEEM have the right to contest school rules?
Lourdes: Yes, and I let them know that FEEM, according to the constitution itself, they have independence with respect to legal initiatives. As members of that organization, students may file a motion to eliminate the requirement of school uniforms.
I was a FEEM leader in Los Camilitos, a military school, and if we wanted to we were able to hold meetings that were closed to the teachers. Likewise, in a general assembly of FEEM, we students would not only turn around a teacher from coming into one of our meetings, but an officier! This was because rank didn’t matter there. They had to listen to the students.
HT: But these guys, how did they react?
Lourdes: They were puzzled. So I said to them: “Look, you approved the rules, now I want you to tell me: Why is it that females can wear their hair long and males can’t?” The boy replied, “Because long hair has always been an attribute of women.”
I couldn’t help laughing, but Lourdes continued very calmly with her narrative:
Lourdes: So I asked her: “You’re saying that my husband and son aren’t man enough? Are you doubting the virility of the long-haired rebels who came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains? Do you think our minister of culture is effeminate?”
He replied, “No, I don’t mean that, but it’s the custom…”
“But you can’t legislate customs,” I said.
“We are a civilized country where laws govern, and what the law states that there is an unrestricted right to education. It doesn’t reduce this right to those who wear their hair in a certain way. Because, as far as I know, that enters the area of aesthetics, which is an expression of social consciousness, and even the constitution establishes that artistic expression is free,” I added.
Who sets standards of aesthetics? Who can say that what you like, for example, is better than what I like?
HT: I don’t think they were prepared for questions like that.
Lourdes: No, her only reply was: “School policy has always been this way and it always will.”
I responded, “Well, there, next to the door there’s a poster. Give it to me. I’m going to take it.”
She didn’t understand and asked why.
I then told her “Because on it is Fidel concept of revolution, which begins: ‘Change everything that needs to be changed,’ and that is the antithesis of ‘it always has been and it always will be.’ Those are two contradictory concepts.”
“Give me the concept, it’s mine. You don’t deserve it. I’m fighting for it and you aren’t. You’re fighting for the Project of the New American Century, the Conservatives, the neocons of Ronald Reagan and Bush. Of course I said that smiling; it wasn’t my intention to attack them, just to make them think and I believe I achieved that.”
HT: Usually, young people who hold such positions are not aware of their responsibilities, they only hope to climb those invisible ladders…
Lourdes: That’s what I also told them: “If you don’t ask, if you don’t question, you’re behaving like social climbers and opportunists. When you take the lead in this struggle to defend the rights of students, only then can you gain the respect of the student body, because right now the student body doesn’t believe in you. Are you aware of your responsibility? You are the future of this nation. You are the leaders of tomorrow. My generation isn’t going to inherit the power – but your generation will.”
HT: What was the conclusion?
Lourdes: They asked me to give them those standards in writing so that they could discuss them with the people from the ministry. Look, for me this is a very serious matter. It’s not limited to the issue of long hair, is about how we obtain our rights.
Because what’s being trampled here is the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, our constitution. This constitution didn’t cost only sweat, it cost blood. Many young people died for that constitution before ever having loved or having lived.
It makes no sense to stand up in a mass rally and talk about heroes or recite poetry about them if we remain silent when it comes to defending their legacy.
The legacy of the dead is this: It is the right of human beings to develop as individuals, as Marti said, to be free, to think and to speak un-hypocritically. That’s the debt we owe history.