Beyond the Blockade: Education in Cuba shows how a country with scarce resources, under an economic blockade, can build an excellent education system, finds Orlando Hill
Beyond the Blockade is a very timely book. The pandemic has given us pause for thought of what kind of education to which we want to go back. The NEU, UK’s largest education union, has taken up the leadership, which Johnson’s government is incapable of offering, by presenting a ten-point plan for a National Education Recovery Plan.
Beyond the Blockade is a collection of testimonies of participants in the delegations organised by the National Education Union (NEU) and its sister union the National Union of Science, Education and Sport Workers (SNTECD) in Cuba. Since 2016 the NEU has been sending solidarity delegations to Cuba as defiance against the blockade, and to give teachers an opportunity to experience Cuban education first-hand.
Most of our readers will probably be familiar with the success of the Cuban education system. Cuba spends almost 13% of its GDP on education, the highest of any government in the world, and double what the UK spends. Half of the country’s budget is spent on health and education. Despite sixty years of economic blockade imposed by the USA, Cuba has managed to create an education system to rival any of the OECD countries. Literacy rates are 99.8% overall, and 100% among those aged 15 to 25. Education is free from preschool to post-graduation. Cubans are shocked to hear how much debt UK undergraduate students accumulate.
Contrasting educational values
What most impressed UK delegates was the relationship students have with their teachers. According to special-educational-needs coordinator Maggie Morgan love is ‘an important underlying principle guiding Cuban pedagogy’ (p.23). Resources are scarce, but Cuba makes up for it with people. The average class size is just 9.2, and class sizes are never over 25. In England, according to the Department for Education, average infant class size is 27.1. For secondary schools it is 21.7. Most teachers in England who went back to school in June would agree with Alex Snowdon who found ‘having a class of 10 children … refreshing.’
The focus of the education system in Cuba is the child. Occupational therapists and speech therapists are employed full time in schools. Students and teachers gasped when they were told that an English child had to sit 27 exams to complete ten GCSEs within three weeks.
Democracy is also fundamental to the education system. Parents, teachers, students, government, and management work collaboratively. Any change in curriculum, pedagogy or education policy is discussed with all participants as equal. The idea that a government can impose changes contrary to the opinion of those who work in education is unbelievable to Cubans.
Music, sports, and art play a central role. The testimonies of the teachers are full of examples of students in their pristine uniforms performing for the visitors. Music education is embedded in the curriculum, and students can further their activities in interest clubs which take place in every school. The clubs are run by staff, parents, and the community. Compare that to England where many schools due to the crisis in funding can no longer offer those opportunities.
But it is not just the institutions. Students feel safe when walking to school. Cubans were horrified when told of the rising number of knife crimes among the youth in England. Mental-health issues are on the rise in Britain, which has been linked, in part, to the pressure from a system that puts its focus on outcomes and neglects the learning process. In Cuba this is not an issue. Teachers are consulted on curriculum changes, and students ‘enjoy a truly broad, creative and relevant curriculum’ (p.78). Another aspect that contributes towards a healthy mental state among Cuban students is that success is seen as something achieved by the whole group rather than only the individual.
Cuba in a show of international solidarity exports its education, but not in the same way as Britain, where universities depend on funding from foreign students. Foreign students are defined as ‘Cubans born abroad’ (p.81) and are welcome. Tuition fees vary from US$20,000 to US$40,000, but that is for the whole course and not just a year. Scholarships are offered to high-achieving students, and sometimes they cover the whole fee. Cuba also sends literacy brigades to other countries to share their experience of eradicating illiteracy.
All of this has been achieved despite sixty years of economic blockade. An economic blockade is an act of war, and those who suffer most are the people. Rob Miller in his piece gives details of what the blockade means. ‘Paper and exercise books are precious, and students have to write two rows to every line on a page to save paper’ (p.90). There is a lack of equipment, such as Braille machines, specialist wheelchairs and other resources. Libraries are depleted due to the difficulties in importing paper and printing equipment. Cuba is forced to pay double for what it could purchase in the open market if it were not for the pressure of the US government.
Socialism from above and below
The book is easy to read and should be read. But as I read it questions popped into my head. Why do Cuban students wear uniforms? If you ask the question in Britain, the answer you get is that ‘it’s good for discipline and levels students from different social backgrounds.’ In theory, you should not be able to tell the difference between the rich and the poor kid. However, Cuba is a country with very little social difference, and according to all the accounts, discipline is not a problem. So, you do not get any of the benefits of the uniform, but all the disadvantages. Young people all over the world tend to express their individuality by what they wear. I would like to ask if the uniform policy covers the length of the student’s hair. In Britain there have been cases of black pupils being excluded for their ‘extreme haircut’.
Does the uniform have anything to do with the idea of the ‘new man and new woman’ developed by Che Guevara? This utopian concept of a new human embodies the ‘quintessential revolutionary personality to which all Cubans should aspire’ (p.32). It is at the very heart of the pedagogical thought of the Cuban educational system. The new person has noble characteristics: collectivism, humanism, modesty, simplicity, generosity, discipline, a spirit of constant upgrading, and an uncompromising attitude in the face of badly made things.
Do students have to memorise this list? Who decides what to include in the list? That is the debate that socialists have had since Marx. Can socialism be built from above? Why should education be about aspiring to be someone, even if it is this ‘new man or woman’? Shouldn’t it be about people discovering their potential and giving the opportunities for them to develop, even if they lack discipline and are happy with imperfections? Surely this ‘new man and woman’ can only be born through experience and collective participation. There is no need of a preconceived vision of how they should be. If socialism is built through mass participation, there is no room for a blueprint. I have a problem with revolutionaries that try to impose utopian ideas, even if they are beautiful and I might agree with them.
Problems of race and nation
That leads to another question. What is the role of the Communist Party in all this? Lauren Collins informs us that the Party’s main role is to ‘arbitrate between competing sectoral interests’ (p.63). In the several socialist organisations (including Counterfire) in which I have taken part, and the ones I admire, like the Black Panthers, education has been central. Fred Hampton argued that without education people do not know for what they are fighting. ‘Soon you will have negro imperialism’, without such understanding, he once told a group of young revolutionaries. You could not join the Panthers without going through their educational programme.
Does the Cuban Party have an educational programme? In the constitution it is described as ‘martiano, fidelista, marxista y leninista’. Is there room for all the other great revolutionaries, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Mariátegui among many others? Maybe the answer is in award-winning Leonard Padura's novel The Man Who Loved Dogs (2009), about a Cuban’s discovery of Trotsky. Padura confesses that like most Cubans of his generation he knew absolutely nothing about Trotsky’s ideas or life. He describes the novel as a story of ideas which were buried or perverted by the leaders who for seventy years were the masters of power and, of course, of History. If you have not read it, I recommend it.
I was also a bit unsettled by the patriotism to which the children are taught to emulate. Various teachers were impressed by the patriotism children demonstrated. It seems a bit paradoxical. Since its revolution, Cuba has demonstrated an enormous degree of internationalism. Mandela personally thanked Fidel for Cuba’s help in defeating apartheid. Cuba is famous for sending doctors to regions suffering from pandemics. It even offered to send doctors to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Do Cubans think that their revolution is part of a world revolution or is it a specifically Cuban affair? Che Guevara, an Argentinian, understood that for the Cuban revolution to succeed it needed to spread. How does education reconcile patriotism with internationalism?
In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx states that the new society emerges from the capitalist society ‘still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.’ That is why I found it strange that NEU teachers were satisfied with the answers they received when they asked whether there was racism in Cuba. ‘Everybody is Cuban,’ (p.41); ‘There is no racism in Cuba because there are no races’; ‘Racism is not an issue in Cuba because we are all Cubans’ (p.43). I have heard those same arguments in Brazil. Slavery was crucial to the colonial economy, and it was only abolished in 1886. Surely this should have left ‘birthmarks’. But statistics on racial categories are not kept because ‘everybody is equal’ (p.39). Does that make racism go away? What data is there to support the argument that there is no racism? The underrepresentation of blacks within the Cuban state forces us to examine structural racism and the role of the State.
Malcolm Richards tells the story of Eddie who, along with his friends, ‘shaved his dreadlocks off to avoid discrimination from employers and frequent challenges from the police’ (p.50). Eddie has two jobs, works long hours and has very little time to see his two daughters. When he was asked what life was like as a black Cuban he replied ‘El bloquero’ (p.50). Richards acknowledges that racism and discrimination is a reality despite the many legislative advances.
My final question, which I have asked many people who have visited Cuba, is whether historical materialism and dialectical materialism are taught in schools. The response I have received so far is a shrug of shoulders, but it is an important question for a country and state that describes itself as socialist. Without an understanding of historical materialism, socialism becomes the accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, and not a historical outcome of the clash between two conflicting classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Are students taught to see things not as isolated objects rigid and fixed, but interconnected and in constant motion with an origin and ending? I would hope so. For without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary practice. Maybe I should go with the next delegation and ask to see the syllabus and a scheme of work.
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Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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