Free Education in Cuba? Sort of / Ivan Garcia


Iván García, 4 September 2015 — At the beginning of August, a month before the start of the new school year, Rigoberto and his wife scoured several Havana stores in search of school supplies and a pair of shoes for their son, a student in the sixth grade.

“Do the math,” Rigoberto says, grumbling. “A pair of sneakers, 42 CUC*; a backpack, 32 CUC; 12 notebooks, 12.50; a kit containing a ruler, slide rule, and compass, 9 CUC, and covers for notebooks and books, 3 CUC. Total: 98.50 CUC. My wife and I are professionals and between the two of us, we make 1,470 Cuban pesos per month, which comes out to 60 convertible pesos (CUC). The government crows about how they provide free education, but in practice, Cuban families every day must lay out more money in hard currency for school supplies.”

Sayma, 34, a mother of two, had better luck. “Using a ’mule’**, my relatives in Miami sent me all the necessities for school, including uniforms.”

If 25 years ago the olive-green State, manager of a highly doctrinaire education organization, subsidized 100% of the material support for students and guaranteed free or very economical snacks and lunches, in this 21st Century the numbers in red on the public balance sheet are impeding the preservation of a quality school system.

More than a few schools are still functioning thanks to the support of parents and relatives. “Among other things,” declares Daniel, father of a primary school student, “we must take up a collection to purchase two fans; come up with the paint for, and do the painting of the classroom; buy chlorine and detergent to clean the restrooms; obtain writing paper and pens; and download educational content from the Internet for teachers and students. Now the schools are half-state, half-private.”

Five years ago, the regime reported that in 2010, it allocated 12.81% of the GDP to public instruction–a figure about which it still boasts, just as it does about how the system is “free.” But education in Cuba a long time ago ceased being that queen whom Fidel Castro would show off, and today she is but a cinderella.

Only during the first session of the school year are students given a dozen exercise books, damaged textbooks and a minimum of school supplies. The rest of what they need is provided by the parents from their own pockets. Lunch in the primary school cafeterias and the afternoon snack in the secondary schools are no better than slop.

For poor families such as the one headed by Dianelis, mother of three, providing the snacks is a true headache. “That’s 15 snacks per week,” she points out. “Almost always, what I fix up for them is some bread with oil and an instant drink. The lunch in the primary schools and the afternoon snack in the secondary schools are so bad that many students leave them untouched, and the enormous amount of leftovers is collected as fodder for the pigs.”

Parents with ample wallets prepare varied and high-quality refreshments. “I spend about 30 to 40 CUC per month just on my daughter’s afternoon snacks,” says Gilberto, a private entrepreneur.

These family outlays are not limited to sneakers, notebooks and snacks. After completing a school year, many parents will pay between 8 and 10 CUC per month for private tutoring to compensate fo their low quality of the instruction provided in the primary schools.

According to Juan José, a construction worker and father of 8th and 9th graders, “When the teenager gets into secondary or pre-university levels, the tutors charge one CUC per subject. It’s even more in the university.”

If for many families a new school year means more expenses, General Raúl Castro’s autocracy does not seem able to find a solution to the shortage of teachers throughout almost the entire country.

Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez recently showed her concern over how the 2015-16 school year began with only 95.2% of teaching positions filled. The situation is most problematic in Havana and Matanzas, where the teaching corps will be supplemented by 3,400 instructors from other provinces.

The main cause of why a significant number of educators prefer working as hotel doormen or pizza makers in private enterprises is simple: the miserable salaries in the education sector.

“I got a master’s degree, and as a secondary school teacher I made 700 Cuban pesos (about 32 dollars) per month,” confides Nivaldo, a former teacher from Havana. “Now, as a chef in a private cafeteria, I make 3,600 to 3,700 pesos per month (about 165 dollars). And all without hassles from students and their parents, who every day are more rude and violent. I used to have to wait till 22 December (Teachers Day) for them to give me a gift of a bottle of cologne and two handkerchiefs. Now I don’t need charity from parents; I can cover my expenses.”

The 1,790,800 students who began a new school year on September 1 will do it the same as the year before: without Internet in their classrooms. The exceptions are the university students, who in small doses and with terrible connectivity will continue having access to the Net.

The lack of Internet in Cuban schools will take its toll on future generations of professionals.

According to government predictions, computerizing the entire national education system will take until 2020. Cuba is a late and disadvantaged comer to the century of new technologies.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

Translator’s Notes:
*Cuba has a dual currency system consisting of CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos, which are pegged to the U.S. dollar) and CUPs (Cuban Pesos). For more background, click here.
** “Mule” is a slang term for couriers of goods from overseas.