Between the Official Utopia and Generational Realism / Cubanet, Miriam Celaya

Cuban youth at the Major Lazer concert in Havana, 2016 (Photo file)

cubanet square logoCubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 1 June 2017. – A characteristic feature of ineffective and outdated political regimes is the constant appeal to the historical past as a mechanism for legitimizing the present, and as a resource for survival. In the case of Cuba, this principle has been the rector of official discourse and its means of diffusion, and it has been applied with particular force in the teaching of History.

As a consequence, several generations of Cubans born shortly before or after 1959 have grown up indoctrinated in the assumption that all events from the “discovery” of the Island by Christopher Columbus through Spanish colonization, the Taking of Havana by the British, the Wars of Independence, and the brief Republic were nothing more than the flagstones that paved the long road that would lead to this (even longer) path -with airs of eternity- known as the “Cuban Revolution”, our nation’s only and final destination.

The preaching took almost religious tones. Just as Noah saved all of Earth’s living species, the boat “Granma”, with its young crew, was the Cuban people’s “salvation”. Thus, judging from history textbooks at all levels of “revolutionary” teaching, the founding fathers, the illustrious pro-independence, the brightest Cuban-born intellectuals, and all decent Cubans for the last 525 years had their hopes set, though they didn’t know it, in today’s “socialist” Cuba and, above all, in the pre-eminent guidance of an undisputed leader of world stature who would continue to lead the ship even beyond material life: Fidel Castro.

With enthusiasm worthy of better causes, most Cuban professors, including those who teach other subjects and not just History, have reinforced the systematic misrepresentation of the past. An illustrative example might be that of a professor at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana, who would tell her students that “José Martí would have been a perfect Cuban, except for one limitation: he was not a Marxist. However, had he been born in this era, he would most certainly have been a Marxist. No comments.”

However, despite the official efforts, the flat rejection of history is embodied in the obstinate student response. Year after year, pedagogical technocrats, faithful servants of the regime, therefore, accomplices of that apocryphal, mechanical and boring Cuban History, insist in the useless need for improving teaching programs, “updating” the contents and adapting them to the present in order to make them “more attractive” for students. The problem is a fundamental one, since the objective and basic principle of the subject is still to blur the values of the past, to praise a failed sociopolitical system -a fact that most students can verify in the reality that surrounds them- and to glorify the leadership that today’s young people find distant, alien and unwanted.

So perverse has the indoctrination been, and so reinforced the idea that in Cuba everything has been done and decided since January 1st, 1959, that it has resulted in the opposite effect than what the Power attempted to achieve. Not only do the new generations show disinterest in Cuba’s history, but many young people feel alienated from the system, from the country where they were born, and from that future as promising as it is unattainable, in search of which their parents and grandparents became uselessly worn out. The Revolution has lost its heroic quality for the new generations, who perceive it as a sort of fatal outcome which they would rather take no notice of. Now the heroes and villains of video games are infinitely more exciting than that gang of hungry and stinking guerrillas who roamed an inhospitable mountain range.

It is not by chance, then, that the worst university entrance exams results, especially in recent years, are precisely in the subject of Cuban History, according to Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, Minister of Education, within the framework of the National Council of Federation of Secondary Education Students (FEEM), adjourned in Havana this last Saturday, May 27th.

The same Minister also expressed concern about the decrease in the number of students taking the entrance exams, a phenomenon that is becoming stronger every year, which shows the growing lack of interest of the new generations in higher education studies in a country where professionals often make less than many skilled workers or employees in restaurants and the service industries.

In fact, unlike the generations of students of the 70’s and 80’s, the current tendency is a decrease in university enrollment, which does not necessarily entirely correspond to a State policy, as some claim, but to a scenario that is distancing itself from the official utopia and speeches as it approaches an increasingly crumbling reality.

Successive attempts to attract students for teaching careers have not had the expected results either. Not only are their enrollments still insufficient, but these centers are essentially sustained by those students whose depressed academic averages prevent them from pursuing other, more attractive majors. For decades, teaching careers -along with agricultural specialties– have not been in very high demand, which is why they have been the last and sometimes, the only option for low-achieving young people aspiring to higher education. This factor, in turn, has weakened the teaching levels, particularly in primary, middle, and pre-university education.

In turn, the relative success of some private sectors (the self-employed), related to restaurant services, tourism and other activities independent of the State seem to be influencing the decision-making of young people when it comes to choosing between continuing university studies or opting for expeditious and practical training that allows them to enter a much more attractive and better paying labor market.

The crude reality that today’s generations exhibit far surpasses their parents’ naive romanticism, whose paradigm of success, prestige and salary advantages were first achieved by getting a university degree, a mirage that faded rapidly in the face of the deep economic crisis -never surpassed- which produced in Cuba the collapse of the so-called real Eastern Europe socialism and pushed thousands of qualified professionals into survival mode, translated into occupational reorientation in the presence of the devaluation of the currency, some of them being contracted out, into conditions of semi-slavery (as in the paradigmatic case of doctors) or, markedly accented, in emigration as the best alternative.

Today’s young people -in many cases unaware- are in the presence of the end of the utopia that marked the lives of several generations of Cubans. At last, capital has come to be imposed, so they prefer to dedicate themselves to what provides them with income and prosperity in the shortest possible term.

It is a pragmatic vision without doubt, more in tune with a post-egalitarian society, where contrasts proliferate between some absurd “Guidelines” commanded by the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and the glamour of capitalism appearing in the stained glass windows of the new luxury hotels in Havana and other areas of the country. “If the power elite and their descendants can enjoy the good things in life, why not us?” reason young people.

It’s true that there are still some areas of interest for young Cubans in higher education, as in careers related to computer science, industrial engineering, and art and design, among others. However, suffice it to consult the enrollment figures today and contrast them with those in previous years to envision a future that is still being sketched with lines unequivocally opposed to the utopia.

All indicates that the old myth of the levels of education of Cubans has begun to crumble, and with it, that sentence that “the future in Cuba will be that of men of science”. Another gross error of the Unmentionable, because the Cuban future will belong to those enlightened ones that have learned better to conduct themselves under the empire of capitalism.

Translated by Norma Whiting