14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 18 June 2022 — The majority of university students in Cuba were born between 1998 and 2003. According the Ministry of Higher Education, as reported in the newspaper Granma, preliminary enrollment for the 2021-2022 academic year was 292,507 students, distributed across Cuba’s fifty universities and 113 majors. The most prestigious schools, all founded before the 1959 Revolution, are the University of Havana (UH), the University of Oriente (UO) and the Marta Abreu de Las Villas Central University (UCLV).
Founded on the idea that the universities should be protected spaces, UCLV’s buildings are located on the outskirts of the city. To get to campus, students and teachers must take a motoneta, a six to eight-seat vehicle which requires waiting in a long line. Those who cannot afford this option have to wait for the Line 3 bus, which is always full and whose drivers often do not stop to pick up passengers. The UCLV campus is bright and spacious. Seen from above, its three main buildings spell out LUZ, the Spanish word for light.
14ymedio talked to one UCLV student about daily life at Cuban universities, economic insecurity, transportation issues, the scholarship situation and the desire to emigrate.
Question. What’s it like to be a Cuban college student today? Do you feel you are achieving something, getting ahead, building a future?
Answer. One of the hardest things to be in Cuba today is a student, especially a college student. You need money to survive in this country and the meager stipend the university gives you only lasts two weeks, if you economize. And though many of us have chosen majors because we like them, because we are passionate about them, we don’t see a future in them.
Economically speaking, college students in Cuba are no different from anybody else. Once they get their degrees, the only thing most will have to show for it is “a little piece of paper to hang on the wall.” They will have find work in something outside their field of study.
Economically speaking, college students in Cuba are no different from anybody else. Once they get their degrees, the only thing most will have to show for it is “a little piece of paper to hang on the wall”
Q. Talk to me about the scholarship. What is a normal day like at the university?
A. It’s really trying. Beginning every morning, you have to hide any small appliance we might have brought from home so university staff doesn’t see it. We are not allowed to cook on campus because [they claim] the electrical wiring isn’t compatible.
We also cannot have water heaters. You have to bathe using cold water, both summer and winter. If you do have a water heater, you have to hide it or you risk losing your scholarship indefinitely. And then there is the big taboo: You cannot have people of the opposite sex in your building (though everyone is an adult) and you cannot play loud music.
Q. Do you feel you are being watched? Are there informants in your classroom or among your teachers? What role does the University Student Federation (FEU) and the Young Communist League (UJC) play in university life?
A. What Cuban today does not feel he is being watched every day? Politics and controversial views are things best discussed in the privacy of the bedroom or, even better, not discussed at all if you don’t know the other person well. I don’t think there are informants in my classes. I am not sure about the professors but certainly among the department heads there are. The FEU and the UJC are almost like ghosts. They do not address the real needs of the student body. You only hear from them when they need to hold a meeting or organize some political activity.
We also cannot have water heaters. You have to bathe using cold water, both summer and winter. If you do have a water heater, you have to hide it or you risk losing your scholarship indefinitely
Q. How is the quality of instruction there? Is there a lot of ideology in class content?
A. The quality of instruction varies. There are professors with PhDs who make a real effort to impart everything you will need to know in your chosen field and more. But there are those with masters degrees who go out of their way to give the most boring, useless classes you could imagine. For most professors, ideology is our daily bread. Students can be called upon at
any given moment to engage in “ideological work” because apparently three courses on Marxist theory — full of seminars and conferences designed to train students to paraphrase what the professor says like a robot — are not enough.
Q. How much money do you need and what does it go towards?
A. As the saying goes, “education is free but it will cost you.” Theoretically, it’s possible to attend university without having to pay for anything except transportation. But depending on where you live, that can really add up. In my case, the cost can be anywhere from 30 to 150 pesos per trip.
These days it’s impossible to survive the rigors of college life solely on the deplorable food they serve in the dining hall. A cup of coffee costs 5 pesos but a decent meal can go for almost 100 pesos. That would come to more than 300 pesos a week if a student ate only at the school cafeteria and dispensed with many things such as going to parties with friends. Stipends range from 200 to 400 pesos depending on what year a student is attending school.
Very few still believe they can be a force for change. Most use social media to express their opinions.
Q. Cuban universities were once restless, modern places. Students were often the first to join protests and demonstrations but the revolution seems to have put an end to that. What are Cuban college students thinking about today? What do they have to say about today’s domestic situation and political prisoners?
A. For the most part, Cuban college students just try to quietly get through what are supposed to be the best years of their lives. Studying and getting good grades, working towards a degree they can later use to find work, hanging out with classmates and avoiding as much as possible anything that might disrupt this routine.
Others simply tolerate any injustices they might see in the country or at the university. Very few still believe they can be a force for change. Most use social media to express their opinions in spite of the problems this might cause them at school.
As I said before, one of the main activities of the university is ideological work. The university is one of the few places where, if you don’t get information on the domestic situation from your own sources, whether that’s the official press or independent media, then you’re not going to find out what’s going on in the rest of the world.
I remember that, when the San Isidro Movement began, none of my classmates knew what was going on until they got home. Only when events had gained momentum did the university director make every effort to “explain” what was happening. In other words, to let us know what we should think or say in case we wanted to comment on the matter.
It’s incredible that there are still young people who blindly believe everything the government or the university tells them
Q. What do you think when you see someone your age becoming a propagandist for the regime?
A. You have no idea how much this question is discussed at the university. It’s incredible that there are still young people who blindly believe everything the government or the university tells them. Many find it intolerable that there are those among us, going through the same program that we are, who are cynical enough to say with total certainty that the country is advancing, that it is broadening its ideology or, as they told me, that [the regime] is beginning to accept the voice of dissent.
Q. Do you read the independent press? How do you know what is really going on in Cuba? Do you watch the nightly news or follow programs such as Con Filo or La Pupila Asombrada?
A. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on in the country until recently. A couple of years ago I started following some independent outlets. The demonstrations that took place in Cuba have forced me to search out unofficial news sources to understand what was really going on, things the nightly news was definitely not covering.
Since I spend weekdays on my studies, I can only watch the news on weekends. But even then, most of the time I lower the volume so I don’t have to listen to all the nonsense they’re “reporting.” Con Filo or Hace Cuba are some of the worst programs produced in this country. There are programs that feed on a lot of bogus news, most of it self-generated, or defame journalists and independent media by simply claiming “they are paid by the CIA to say that.”
Q. Would you leave Cuba to study or work somewhere else? Would you stay? What future do you see for yourself?
A. If you ask that question of most of this country’s students, university or not, the answer would be, yes, they would leave. No conscientious young person in Cuba sees a future in which he can feel fulfilled, in which he can practice his profession and use the knowledge he has spent years studying to acquire, years when most people were already working, making small fortunes through self-employment. I don’t think anyone who had the chance to leave, even if it were for a short time, would turn it down.
The future I see for myself is very uncertain. Maybe I’ll be lucky and end up like one of the few who can practice his profession. But I really doubt I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished very much in my life. I might just be one of those Cubans who spends his youth studying only for knowledge-sake, not to make money. I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see how this university adventure turns out and what’s waiting for me at the end of the tunnel.
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