Cuba: Return to the Classrooms / Iván García

Source: Visual St. Paul Blog
Source: Visual St. Paul Blog

Ivan Garcia, 5 September 2016 — After getting up at dawn and after waiting in line for two hours in the rain, Alicia, 37, a mother of a junior high school student was able to buy her son a uniform for the new school year.

“This year they changed the method of distributing the uniforms. Before you could buy one in any store in the municipality designated for such things. Now there is one store for every neighborhood. The State grants two uniforms in seventh grade, one in eighth and none in the ninth. It is a headache to get the exact size,” says Alicia, while putting the uniform in her old Singer sewing machine.

The official price of a uniform is the equivalent of ten cents on the US dollar. In elementary school, the blouse or shirt is white and the skirt or shorts are wine red. In junior high the blouse or shirt continues to be white, but the skirt or shorts is mustard yellow. And in high school, the colors change, bright blue blouse or shirt and dark blue skorts or pants.

In Cuba wearing the uniform is obligatory at all levels of schooling, except in university. But the majority of the parents complain about the limited quantity of uniforms awarded by the State, not taking into account individual growth.

“It’s a single uniform for the whole year. My sons are a bola de churre* when they get to school. The solution is to buy them abroad and they cost between 100 and 150 Cuban pesos (around $6 US), says Ernesto, father of two boys in elementary school.

For families like Angel’s, owner of an old 1954 Ford that he uses as a private taxi, purchasing uniforms on the black market is not a problem. “Every year I buy my kids three or four extra uniforms. I spend 150 CUC (about $150 US) in uniforms alone each year.”

But the lack of uniforms is only one of the many inconveniences and added costs that face parents on the Island. We ask Carmen how much money she spends during the school year, and with the precision of an accountant, she offers the details.

“Ten convertible pesos (CUC) for two uniforms for my daughter. Thirty CUC for a backpack. Fifteen for portfolio because now the girls like to carry bags. A pair of Converse, 80 CUC. Twelve CUC to buy notebooks in hard currency, because the ones the government hands out are poor quality. To this I have to add 40 to 50 convertible pesos a month in snacks and lunches,” says Carmen.

In Cuba, excepting in elementary school, the schools don’t offer lunch. “In primary they serve lunch rations at school dining rooms, and in junior high they get a midday snack, a piece of bread with sausage or hamburger and a soy yogurt. But due to the terrible preparation, a good portion of the students don’t eat it,” says Eusebio, an education methodologist in a Havana municipality.

Until high school, students have two class sessions, morning and afternoon, and usually stay in school about eight hours. Some parents, like Miguel Antonio, gives 40 Cuban pesos to his son every morning to buy lunch in a cafe near the school. Others, like Maritza, prepare snacks and lunch in a thermos Monday through Friday for her daughter, all of which is loaded into an extra bag.

“The students look like Alpinists. They carry enormous bags full of books and food. I don’t know how they don’t end up with scoliosis,” comments Sandra, a medical specialist and mother of a son in the 8th grade.

On Monday September 5, when the 2016-17 school year begins in Havana, more than 1,700,000 students will head to classrooms at different levels of education throughout the island. According to the newspaper Granma, 94.2% of the teaching positions are filled. The provinces with the highest deficit of teachers are Havana, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Matanzas and Ciego de Avila.

For a long time, being a teacher in Cuba has been a dignified profession. Osleidys, a native of the eastern province Guantanamo, some 600 miles from Havana, is a teacher more by necessity than by vocation. “After I finished high school the only career I could study was teaching, and I didn’t even finish. Because of the deficit in teachers the Minister of Education was forced to hire teachers without sufficient training.”

The positive part, for Osleidys, is that she was able get a permit from the authorities to live in Havana, “Because Law 217 prevents anyone from settling in the capital except for teachers, builders and police, so we were able to move here.”

Very young teachers, almost the same age as their students, enroll in teaching programs to escape military service. A Cuban teacher draws a salary that fluctuates between the equivalent of 20 and 35 dollars a month. Professors at the university level earn something more. And they receive bonuses from the State.

An officer in the armed forces or the Ministry of the Interior could go on vacations with their families to recreations centers subsidized by the regime, they have the right to a house and other material benefits. But in Cuba, unlike in Finland, the model nation for education, teaching is among the worse professions.

Recently, Education Minister Ena Elsa Velaquez recognized that not everything is ready for the coming school year. After a tour or the 15 provinces and the special municipality of the Isla de la Juvented, declared that more than 390 schools were in critical condition and the students are being relocated.

For his part, Deputy Rolando Ruiz reported that the Ministry of Education (MINED) has 17.5 million convertible pesos to secure key resources, including science laboratories, workshops and sports equipment.

Teaching in Cuba is the job of the government. But the steady economic crisis that has gone on for 27 years, has caused parents, grandparents and other relatives to take on the tasks inherent to the state.

“In theory, MINED doesn’t accept that parents paint the classrooms, repair the desks, buy the fans and donate brooms and detergent to clean the bathrooms. But under the table, the teachers accept it because state maintenance crews, at best, only give a coat of paint to the front of the school,” says the mother of three children at three different levels of schooling.

Sometimes not even the basics get done. Eugenio Maria de Hostos High School, in the neighborhood of La Vibora, has been unpainted and inadequately maintained for years. Several classrooms have leaks and the uneven floor of the patio cries out for repairs. “Last year, thanks to the pressure exerted by social networks and independent journalists, they changed my son’s classroom. When it rained it was like a river,” says a father.

Five hundred yards from the school, in Monaco park, there is a wireless internet zone. However, in Eugenio Maria de Hostos, as in the rest of the country’s schools, except for universities, there is no connection to the World Wide Web and the computer room is ramshackle and has only three old second generation computers in appalling conditions.

“In 2015 it was said that they would deliver tablets and have internet access. But it was all talk. ETECSA, the Cuban communications monopoly, likes to boast that it provides a social service. But despite living in the 21st century where the Internet and new technologies are not a whim, but rather a necessity, it is demonstrated that the government is only interested in building things that earn money for them, like WiFi zones,” says Omar, a computer engineer.

For this new school year, internet in all schools will have to keep waiting.

Diario Las Américas, 3 de septiembre de 2016.

*Translator’s note: A negative nickname that refers to Fidel Castro — it roughly refers to raggedy/dirty.