Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 16 February 2021 — Almost a year after the interruption of classes at Cuban universities in March 2020, as an extreme measure to prevent the advance of the coronavirus pandemic in Cuba, the Ministry of Higher Education (MES) issued Resolution 3 of 2021 on January 22. The resolution establishes the “general guidelines for the beginning and development of undergraduate and postgraduate academic activities in the academic year 2021” —which begins February 1— matching “each territory’s epidemiology situation”.
Among the provisions of the aforementioned Resolution, the following stands out: prevalence given to the “incorporation of students to the necessary impact tasks, with priority in facing the pandemic …” rather than to teaching activities and the training of future professionals within each specialty.
The document in question insists on what it calls “actions of community impact, as part of the training of comprehensive, competent professionals, with ideological political firmness and committed to the Revolution”, with which the instrument of pressure on young university students is enshrined to use as pawns in the new “battle”, this time against an invisible and potentially lethal enemy, the coronavirus.
Paradoxically, the shutting down of the Universities last March took place, at least in word, to keep students away from possible contagion and control the epidemic, at a time when the number of positive cases was extremely low. For example, official figures for March 23rd, 2020, showed a total of 40 cases since the disease was declared in Cuba (on March 11th), of which 5 were the positive cases detected the day before, and of those cases, only three were Cubans.
Today, however, the situation is much more complex. In one week between Monday, February 8, and Sunday, February 14, 5,458 new positive cases of COVID-19 were reported throughout the country, 2,847 of them in Havana, where the largest portion of the population resides, and where thousands of families live in numerous communities in conditions of poverty and overcrowding.
How, then, is it possible to explain that the current resurgence in cases prevents the start of face-to-face classes in university classrooms, but at the same time require students to join the so-called “impact tasks”, which include support in isolation centers and community polyclinics, investigations into the orderliness of the massive lines outside the markets as part of the famous “Fight Against Coleros* and Hoarders”, with all the risk of contagion that this implies?
A meeting with several students from Havana’s Enrique José Varona Higher Academic Institute demonstrates what their opinion is on this point and others, contained in Resolution 3/21 of the MES. All of them have been receiving peremptory messages from their “teacher guides” to join the aforementioned “impact tasks”, under warning of being “analyzed” by the Dean’s Office and suffering the corresponding retaliation, which in the most rebellious of cases could include dismissal from the University.
Leannis, a Spanish-Literature Faculty 3rd year student, indicates that the students in her group were instructed to connect to a common “Telegram” thread through which the lead teacher would give them the necessary information about where they should go in the municipality where each resides to receive the corresponding “task”. The municipal institution would also certify their performance.
“There is a high number (of students) who have resisted going, although it is said that they will be paid more than a thousand pesos (CUP), but that money does not warrant the risk. Now a process of analysis of individual attitudes is taking place and there will be sanctions and notes on the student’s record. But there is a lot of disagreement because nobody asked us if we were willing to make that sacrifice… Because it is a sacrifice!”, she reasons.
“To them we are soldiers, so they give us orders as if we were a troop in a war. I’ve already done a year of military service and I don’t have to take orders, even less from a civilian!”, Francis intervenes. He is also in his third year, although in a different faculty, and he is one of those who is reluctant to take on the “impact task”.
Very upset, he shows me a WhatsApp thread on his mobile phone through which his guide teacher and other teachers from the faculty communicate. Threats against those who refuse to “join in the work” are frequent, laying naked young people’s “spontaneity” so much touted by the official media.
“Bear in mind that if you are predisposed, it will be worse… All revolutionary students have joined” (and it is already known that universities are “for revolutionaries”), “be consistent with what concerns you, lamentations will come later.”
“You are not required to attend to give support in these tasks, but everyone knows what is best for you in this case… you have what other countries don’t have, be grateful and you will be able to attain your career… the impact tasks will be measured and evaluated as one more subject… let’s call ourselves a chapter, don’t take this as a scolding, or a much less as a threat” …are some of the messages from teachers to young people that can be read in the thread.
“They also told us that we should donate blood,” adds Vanessa, a 3rd year Spanish student. “I don’t know how they say in the government media that ‘everything is guaranteed’ and now they ask us for blood because ‘there is a national emergency…’ There are many things that are not understood, they are not being clear and they are not telling us everything… I’m even afraid”.
Two other fellow members are more withdrawn, afraid to express themselves, but end up being infected by their peers. “What worries me the most is that last year ended with practical work in some subjects and in others with a ‘shutting down for performance’, which was in consideration for the teachers, without debate or consultation. They sent us a note, period. We finished 2nd year without completing the course syllabus and continue the same or worse”, says Igor, in his 3rd year of the Art Faculty.
“I want to be a good teacher”, Leannis intervenes, “but we all come with a very bad base due to the low level of education we had in elementary, secondary and high school. Now it is worse, because in that Resolution it is said that we must develop ‘self-management of knowledge’, ‘autonomous learning’ and other things that can only be done when we have a bibliography, Internet access, digital content and other guarantees that most Cuban students do not have. Everything looks very nice in the document but in real life we know that only those who have families with resources can learn and take proficiency tests because they can buy cards to connect to the Internet, download information and get bibliographies. The rest of us have only a study guide and a list of sources, but no books or megabytes. I feel very frustrated”.
Once again, as is often the case with everything legislated in Cuba, the aforementioned Resolution is no more than another manifesto of intentions, the kind written by a group of satisfied technocrats with the sole purpose of showing public opinion how concerned the political power is about the new generations’ education which, in truth, has no relation to the vital reality of these young people and the majority of Cubans.
Meanwhile, frustration and uncertainty are the feelings that predominate in my interviewees. They do not have the solution; they feel that they are wasting their time and know in advance that they are condemned to the same mediocrity that ended up swallowing their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. That is why, when I asked them the last and provocative question: “what, then, is your best expectation in this scenario?” I was not surprised by an answer as heartbreaking as it was firm and unanimous: “For us to leave Cuba, the sooner the better”.
*Translator’s note: Coleros are people who are paid by others to stand in line for them (as it is not unusual for lines to be hours long, or even days).
Translated by Norma Whiting