Havana: English for Everyone / Ivan Garcia

Britannia School, Havana

In a city of two and a half million inhabitants such as Havana — its streets riddled with potholes, its garbage cans overflowing, its hydraulic networks shattered and a layer of soot covering the facades of its homes and commercial buildings — it seems anachronistic to see language schools teaching British English.

At the corner of Graciela street and Santa Catalina, a four-lane avenue lined with Jacaranda trees in the Tenth of October district twenty-five minutes from the center of the capital, stands a privately-run English language school with courses of study developed by the UK’s prestigious Cambridge University.

It is headquartered in a large house with air-conditioned classrooms and flat screen TVs mounted to the walls. It offers courses for children 4 to 11 years old and adolescents up to age 18. It also offers specialized prep courses for international exams.

The faculty is first rate. And although it costs 20 CUC to register and another 10 CUC a month for tuition, the school is no longer accepting new students due to lack of capacity.

Adriana, a civil engineer, enrolled her eleven-year-old daughter in the school. “It’s quite expensive,” she says, “but thanks to help from the girl’s grandmother, who lives overseas, I can afford to pay for these English classes.”

It costs Osvaldo, a private-sector worker, a bit more. “I enrolled my two sons,” he says. “The sacrifice is worth it; they get a lot of personal attention and the teaching methods are excellent.”

Each student is given an 8-gigabyte flash drive with learning materials, textbooks, exercise books, pencils, pens and a light blue bag. Erasmus, who teaches classes for children, notes, “In the two years the school has been operating, the reception has been tremendous. Over 80 people attend the Monday and Friday evening classes. We guarantee students will learn both forms of English — the UK and the US versions — as well as idioms used in cities like New York and Miami.”

In a spacious porticoed house with a carefully tended rose garden half a mile from the  Britannia private school, Adela teaches English to children, adolescents and adults for 10 CUC per month.

“I give classes three times a week in two different time slots. On September 10 I had to stop enrolling students. In addition to the 10 CUC a month, the first month costs 8 CUC, which covers textbooks, specialized DVDs and other material,” explains Adela.

In Tenth of October alone — with 213,000 inhabitants, it is Havana’s most populous district — there are sixty private English language schools.

“In addition to these there are eleven or twelve state-run schools that offer language classes at night,” says Gregorio, a local high school English teacher. “In addition to price, the main difference between these and the private schools is quality. The classes taught at the private schools are much better than those at state schools.”

Havana probably has more English language classes per capita than any other city on the planet. This was not always the case. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a few state-run foreign language schools in English, German, French or Russian.

By the mid-1980s English language classes were being suppressed in Cuban schools. “It was crazy,” recalls Renato, a philologist. “Russian was adopted but it didn’t enjoy widespread acceptance in spite of the fact that Radio Rebelde broadcast Russian courses.”

But with the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, English language instruction returned to school curricula. With new regulations in 1994 providing greater options for self-employment, hundreds of teachers, interpreters and translators of the language of Shakespeare began giving classes as a way to earn money and improve their quality of life.

Twice a week, Marlén gives English lessons to about twenty students, all under the age of twelve. “I charge 5 CUC a month. I worked as part of a team translating books and articles for Fidel Castro. But I am retired and my 300 Cuban peso a month pension is not enough to live comfortably.”

You wil find that prices run the gamut in Havana, from 1 CUC per class, or 3 CUC a month, to 10 or 15 CUC a month in private academies or well-equipped homes.

According to Carlos, a sociologist, the demand for classes in English and other foreign languages for younger kids and adolescents is driven by the desire of many parents to prepare their children for emigration in the future.

“Not since before 1959, when there were schools throughout Havana offering free English language classes, have so many students of all ages been studying English in such a serious and in-depth way. It is taught in state schools but the classes are poor quality. Behind the high-demand is a desire to be prepared to work, study or live in the United States, Canada or some other English-speaking country. No self-respecting professional — whether he or she is an engineer, programmer or high-tech worker — can avoid the study of the English language. Knowing how to speak English is essential in today’s world.”

Juan Antonio, a Cuban-American living in Miami, knows firsthand the importance of English. “I spent four years working in low-paying jobs because I had not mastered the language. That’s why I send money to my nephews and nieces, so that they can learn English from an early age,” he says. “When it comes time to leave, they will have opportunities for better jobs.”

With the new winds blowing through the island, among the goals a bright young man like Jonathan has is to learn English well enough to attend an American university.

“Young Cubans are always preparing because we hope to get scholarships to study at American or European universities. A degree from any prestigious university is an advantage that will allow us to find good-paying jobs. It’s no longer enough just to emigrate. After arriving, I want to thrive,” says Jonathan.

Comfortable schools with modern teaching methods, such as Britannia in Havana’s Santa Catalina Avenue, offer the quality that those who see their future in an English-speaking country are looking for.

Iván García

Photo from Martí Noticias

23 October 2014

Crisis Among Cuban Dissidents? / Ivan Garcia

Antonio G. Rodiles, Regina Coyula and Ivan Garcia on a panel about independent journalism in Cuba

The egos and grandstanding are projecting an uncertain outlook within the peaceful opposition in Cuba. It’s like a symphony orchestra without a conductor, where musicians play their own tunes.

It’s not for lack of political programs that Cuban activists cede space. They are overflowing with ideas, projects and platforms aimed at democratic change. Some are more consistent than others.

And although all platforms and political parties are entitled to have their doctrines and programs, the reality in Cuba has demonstrated the ineffectiveness of dissident theses.

Born deformed as a matter of genesis. They have no popular support. There are ever fewer reports about them in the Florida media, the Spanish press and the BBC. Continue reading

Of Jails In Cuba / Ivan Garcia

A "combatant" as Cuban prison guards are called, watches over prisoners working in their new uniforms.

For Saul prison is like his second home. He celebrated his 63rd birthday behind bars, fabricating cement and gravel blocks for a Cuban state enterprise called Provari, which makes everything from bricks, tiles and mattresses to insecticides and sells them for hard currency.

Saul knows the island’s penitentiary map like few do. Since 19 years of age he has been held in the main prisons: La Cabana, Chafarinas in Guantanamo, Boniato in Santiago de Cuba and the jails built by Fidel Castro like the Combinado del Este in Havana, Aguica in Matanzas and Canaleta in Ciego de Avila.

“In all, since I was a prisoner for the first time in 1970 because of the Vagrancy Law. I have worked cutting cane, in construction, making tourism furniture or insecticides with hardly any physical protection,” comments Saul, who has been a free man since April. Continue reading

Well-Being in Cuba Hides Behind a Visa / Ivan Garcia

Cuba-Tourist_Card (1)Although Cecilio, an intensive care doctor, knows it will be hard spending two years in a desolate corner of Africa — a continent now synonymous with Ebola and death — there is no other option at hand for remodeling his dilapidated home in a poor neighborhood of Havana.

Nor does he have the legal tools to file a lawsuit against the Cuban government for paying him only a little more than 25% of his actual salary. Nor does he want to.

“What can I do? Take to the streets and protest unfair labor practices? I am not a hero, not by a long shot. It’s true that the government takes the lion’s share of your salary when you are working in an overseas medical mission. But as doctors we have it so bad here —we earn only sixty to seventy dollars a month — that, with the money we make on these missions, we can solve a lot of our long-standing financial problems. After two years in Africa I will be able to make repairs to my house and build a room for my daughter, who is pregnant,” says Cecilio.

This feeling of not being able to alter one’s fate leads to fierce apathy and a supreme sanctimoniousness, which have been the hallmarks of a wide segment of the population for fifty-five years. Continue reading

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis. Continue reading

Summer Vacations in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Two Brothers campsite in Viñales, Pinar del Río province, by Cuba-Junky.

Raudel and his family have already packed their bags for a six-night stay at a campsite in Mayabeque province near Havana.

They saved some of the money their relatives in Miami send them every month and rented an air-conditioned cabin in Los Cocos along the north shore of Havana.

“It costs us 106 CUC with breakfast. We bring our own food to save money. It’s the best option we could find given our budget,” says Raudel.

Depending on the currency and how much of it you have, there are a variety of vacation options available in Cuba this summer. Having convertible pesos (CUC) — popularly known as chavitos and used by the state to pay monthly bonuses of 10 to 35 CUC to employees in key economic sectors such as tourism, telecommunications and civil aviation — certainly makes a difference.

Others ways of obtaining chavitos include operating a small private business or receiving dollars, euros or other forms of hard currency from relatives overseas.

Continue reading

The Day the People of Havana Protested in the Streets / Ivan Garcia

1000472_474759539275644_1332749336_n1994 was an amazing year. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR had been the trigger for the beginning in Cuba of the “Special Period in Times of Peace,” an economic crisis which lasted for 25 years.

We returned to  a subsistence economy. The factories shut down as they had no fuel or supplies. Tractors were replaced by oxen. And the power cuts lasted 12 hours a day.

The island entered completely into an era of inflation, shortages and hunger. To eat twice a day was a luxury. Meat, chicken and fish disappeared off the menu. People ate little, and poorly. Malnutrition caused exotic illnesses like beri-beri and optic neuritis. Continue reading

Alan Gross: Trapped in a Cold War Tale / Ivan Garcia

Alan Gross (b 1949, NY) before his detention and now.

In the Zamora neighbourhood, next to the Carlos J. Finlay military hospital, in the Marianao Council area, in Eastern Havana, many of the neighbours don’t know anything about the background of Allan Gross, the US contractor, who is stuck there.

It’s a poor district, with little houses, dusty streets and broken pavements. The midday heat finds it deserted. Not even the street dogs can bring themselves to walk over the hot asphalt.

People there take shelter from the mid-day sun inside their houses, or, inside a bare private cafe, put together in a house entrance hall, they talk about the latest TV serial, José Dariel Abreuthe’s 31st home run with the Chicago White Sox, or Barcelona’s next sign-ups.

Around here is where you find out about the latest violent crime which happened the previous night and, if the person you are talking to trusts you, he’ll take you round to the house where one of the neighbours will discreetly sell you some trashy industrial bits and pieces and Chinese cell phones. Continue reading

Chatting with One of Havana’s Entrepreneurs / Ivan Garcia

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

View from the Tower Restaurant in the Fosca Building

Humberto, a seventy-four-year old man, has the personality of both an entrepreneur and a smooth talker. At the moment he is relaxed and happy, willing to chat while having a Heineken and without having to keep track of the time.

And that is what he is doing. In the bar of the La Torre restaurant on the twenty-ninth floor of the Focsa building, Humberto is enjoying a very cold beer as he munches on bites of Gouda cheese and Serrano ham while looking out over the city.

At a height of 400 feet Havana looks like an architectural model. Staring at the intense blue of the sea creates the sensation of a bar floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Up here things look different. There is no awareness of the poor condition of the streets and buildings below or the scramble of thousands of Havana residents looking for food at farmers’ markets in order to be able to prepare a decent meal.

Humberto knows how hard life in Cuba is. “But I like to enjoy myself and to spend money eating well, going out with beautiful women and drinking good-quality beverages,” he says.

Continue reading

What the Soviet Union Left Cubans / Ivan Garcia

Pro-Soviet books by the English Dean Hewlett Johnson (1874-19xx). Photo from Havana, 1945.

To this day, in the universal history books in junior high or high schools in Cuba, the Soviet theme is handled with kid gloves.

They recall its founding father Vladimir Illych Lenin, the epic of the Second World War with its 20 million dead (old data, it was 27 million and more than a few died from a bullet in the neck from their own comrade, or in a dark Gulag), and the selfless help of the USSR in the first years of the olive green revolution.

To Zoraida, a third year high school student and a lover of history, when I ask her about that nation made up of fifteen European and Asian republics, without hardly taking a breath, let loose with a tirade right out of the school books.

“The October Revolution was founded in 1917 by Lenin, and despite the aggression of the western nations, it established itself as a great world power. It was the country with the most deaths in World War II, 20 million (the error persists), and it had to fight alone against the fascist hordes. The United States and its allies were forced to open the Second Front in Normandy, faced with the rapid advance of the Red Army,” she responds with the usual pride of a student who applies herself. Continue reading

New Measures by Cuban Customs Service Coming in September / Ivan Garcia

Cuban customs warns against carrying items for third parties.

On September 1, 2014 the Customs Service of the Republic of Cuba will begin enforcing new regulations intended to combat illegal trafficking of merchandise by relatives, friends and “mules”* through airports and port facilities.

It’s one more turn of the screw. Every year since 2011 new regulations have been put in place designed to halt the illegal importation of goods destined for families and private businesses on the island.

In Spring 2012 the customs service began charging ten dollars for every kilo above the twenty-kilo limit for personal baggage. For parcel post the charge was ten dollars per kilo above the five-kilo limit.

According to Onelia, a customs official, “The new measures are intended to halt the trade in goods brought in by mules.” Continue reading

Cuba: Is Varadero for People of Another Social Class? / Ivan Garcia

Under a brightly colored umbrella, a representative of Gaviota, a tourism chain, the property of businessmen in the Cuban military, offers an inclusive leisure package for the summer.

The bureau of reservations is nestled in an old parking lot of a strip mall in 5th Avenue and 42nd, Miramar, to the west of Havana.

It is Saturday. There is a festive atmosphere: Kiosks selling popcorn, sandwiches, and frozen pizzas that are heated in the microwave and taste like plastic. Meanwhile, flat screen televisions are airing the World Cup soccer matches in Brazil.

There has to be music. Randomly situated speakers amplify too loudly the current hit, Bailando, by Enrique Iglesisas, Descemer Bueno, and People of the Zone.

In the tourism bureau everything is a hustle. Over a table, public pamphlets of “all-inclusive” hotels in Varadero, Cayo Coco, or Santa Lucia.

Past nine-thirty in the morning they begin to see clients. The personnel are friendly with Colgate smiles and a commercial diction learned through quick marketing courses. Continue reading