Education Under Castro
Lindsay Nailer, Dickson College, 2009
This essay was awarded The 2009 ACT Minister of Education's Prize for the Best Essay in Contemporary History. It was submitted as part of the Contemporary International Issues unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2009. The self-devised focus question it answers is: ‘What impact did Fidel Castro and his government have on the Cuban education system after the 1959 Cuban Revolution?’. Lindsay Nailer has also contributed The Chinese Communist Party's Seizure of Power to Clio.There is ample evidence that an extraordinary transformation of the Cuban education system was achieved in the years that followed the 1959 revolution.
Castro’s government increased the number of teachers, schools and the attendance rate of children in school to a level comparable to that of the United States. Literacy rates were raised and became the highest in the world, which was confirmed by the UN in 2009.
These improvements were possible because of the government’s programs at the time, which view having an educated population the first major task in the ‘new society.’
Education and all equipment required for education were made free, which encouraged more people to send their children to school.
One of the islands in the Cuban archipelago, the Isle of Pines was transformed into an educational ‘hub,’ completed with a name change to the Isle of Youth in 1978.
While the positives of Castro’s educational reforms were remarkable, there were also a number of negatives.The education children received in school was filled with propaganda and encouraged children to be loyal to Castro and to be ‘good revolutionaries.’ As the need for more teachers grew the quality of them dropped and the government found themselves in a difficult situation. While there were negatives to the educational system, the Castro government offered an education to all people, regardless of their gender, race, age or wealth, something that Batista’s government failed to do.
The revolutionary government viewed education as an important mechanism for changing the way people thought and therefore it became one of their priorities. Statistics show that the number of schools, the number of children attending school and the number of teachers dramatically increased during the post-revolutionary years. In pre-revolutionary Cuba, children who lived in rural areas often missed out on an education because there was no local school or no teachers in the area. Lowry Nelson, who visited Cuba before the revolution wrote that;
In some places there are school buildings, but no teachers; in other places there are teachers but no school buildings... (quoted in Brenner (ed.), 1989, Pg 446).
The figures show that in 1958, only 55% of children or youth aged between six and sixteen were enrolled in school, from kindergarten to university. While at the same time there were only 7,681 educational institutes, such as elementary schools or universities (Brenner, 1989, Pg 448).
In 1958, the teaching population consisted of only 22,000 teachers.
In 1982, 98% of Cuban children aged between six and sixteen attended school.
By that time, there were nearly 16000 educational institutes.
Twenty years later, there were 250,000 teachers.
In post-revolutionary rural Cuba, there are schools with dedicated teachers catering for the child population, no matter how few there are. These figures clearly prove that in post-revolutionary Cuba, the attendance rate number of schools and teachers have increased rapidly, in Cuba after the 1959 revolution.
In post-revolutionary Cuba the literacy rates increased dramatically to a level higher than that of America and Australia.In 1958, Cuba’s average literacy rate was between 55% and 76% (World Research Institute, 2006). According in UN data taken in 2009, Cuba currently has a 100% youth literacy rate, and a 99.8% adult literacy rate (UN report: cited in List of countries by literacy rate, 2009).
Some skeptics argue that there were comparable increases in literacy in other Latin American nations in the 1970 and 1980s and that these positive statistics have nothing to do with the Castro government being in power (Thomas, 1984, Pg 46). However, it can be noted, that while other Latin American nations have improved their educational systems, they still fall below the standard of that of post-revolutionary Cuba. According to UN information taken in 2009, Argentina and Brazil, two of the more educated Latin American nations still only have literacy rates of 97% and 90% respectively (UN report: cited in List of countries by literacy rate, 2009). Therefore, it does seem that Castro’s government has contributed to the increase in Cuba’s literacy.
Related Article: Assessing Che Guevara
Many of Castro’s government’s programs after the revolution tackled the problem of education. The education of people in rural areas became vitally important. The year 1961, saw the start of a massive literacy campaign, where over 300,000 adults and children were sent to rural areas of Cuba to teach. One anti-Castro view suggests that this was a ‘shotgun’ approach and could have been targeted much more efficiently.
While the rural population received an education, the children instructors had their own educations compromised (Gillette, 1972, Pg 15). These volunteer teachers worked under the slogans “If you know, teach; if you don't know, learn,” (The Cuban Education System) and “Let those who know more, teach those that know less,” (Brenner, 1989, 114).
In the first year of the revolution, the illiteracy rate went down from 23.6% for Cubans aged over 10 (and in the countryside the figure was double that rate) to 3.9%, an accomplishment later corroborated by UNESCO and described as probably unequalled in the history of education...
Making people literate was not the sole goal of this campaign. Rather, the government saw that if these people were educated, then they would be able to integrate into the ‘new society’. When this campaign ended, another program started. Primary and secondary education was offered in factories, farms, offices and night schools, and this encouraged all adults, who had missed out on an education to have an opportunity to learn (Thomas, 1984, p. 49). The next government program, entitled "The Battle for the Sixth Grade", aimed at ensuring that every adult in Cuba attained the education level up to sixth grade. This target was reached in the late 1970s (Brenner, 1989, p. 114). The programs that the government implemented after the 1959 revolution indicate that Fidel Castro and the new socialist government viewed education as an important step in creating ‘their’ Cuba.
In Castro’s educational reforms, education was provided free. Before the revolution, education was expensive. Only the rich were able to afford to send their children to school and children with disabilities would not receive an education at all (Garcia, 2006, Pg 150). Castro believed that the cost of education was deterring many people from educating their children.
After the revolution, education was made free for all children and adults, at every stage of education from infant day-care to university (Suárez, 1967, p. 46). Under Castro’s government, students no longer had to pay for books, uniforms, stationery. The government provided everything that was necessary for school (Garcia, 2006, Pg 74). This was a change from the education system under Batista where, “Educational opportunities were restricted by birth, wealth and privilege” (Del Aguila, 1984, Pg 11). This opened up the education system to all Cubans.
The focus and content of education also changed after the 1959 revolution. Between 1956 and 1975, there was more emphasis placed on science, technology and medicine and away from humanities and economics, in the higher education system, reflecting the communist emphasis on solving technical and medical shortages (Halebsky & Kirk, 1985, Pg 31). The Minister for Education, Jose R. Fernandez, has said: "There is no doubt that mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology form the basis for development in today’s world".
Just like in the higher educational system, the post-revolutionary primary school curriculum placed increased emphasis on mathematics and sciences also. This shift in education was designed to meet the new requirement of modernizing the country.
Under the new revolutionary government, the island just off the south coast of the main island of Cuba, the Isle of Pines, became a small scale education utopia. The island had once been the home to open space, farmers, their fields and small local shops. In August 1978, the Isle of Pines officially became the Isle of Youth (McManus, 2000, Pg 119). “By the mid eighties, forty-five junior and eight senior high schools were functioning on the Isle”.
As the years went by, the number of schools, students and graduates increased. The Isle was also home to day-care centres, elementary schools and technical institutes. A woman, who grew up on the Isle and saw it change in front of her, said:
Our quiet little island had totally changed. Suddenly there were all these big, ugly buildings and people, people everywhere. We got schools, roads, all kinds of things we hadn’t had before. But something of the beauty was taken away.
Foreign students, from African or South American nations, arrived with scholarships. Students came from Angola, Bolivia, the Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Namibia, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, just to name a few. In this program, Cuba was going beyond educational reforms for its own development, and was exporting education as a way of spreading revolutionary ideas to aid-dependent developing nations. People in Western nations also began to look at Cuba as an educational model (Del Aguila, 1984, p. 134). The Cuban daily newspaper, The Granma, wrote of the island's success.
They [the students] told how they arrived on the Isle of Youth, homesick and nearly illiterate in their own language, to be welcomed by patient teachers (McManus, 2000, p. 131).
In magnitude, the foreign students’ program was impressive, but there were great differences in the students’ backgrounds which caused many disputes. One boy who studied on the island wrote; “There were lots of fights by nationality” (Manuel Fala). But despite internal tensions, the program ended in July 1997 on a positive note, having had over 40,000 students from 117 nations graduate in thirty years , an achievement which to this day has not been matched.
Under Castro the purpose of education was no longer simply instructing or teaching. Its new principal goal was to encourage revolutionary attitudes. This was achieved by the addition of propaganda to school education (Del Aguila, 1984, Pg 76). Luis Garcia writes about his childhood, growing up in Cuba,
We learn to recite the alphabet where the F is for Fidel, the R is for rifle and the Y for Yankees... Learning about Fidel and rifles and why we should hate the Americans can sometimes take up a fair amount of the school day, even in primary school. (Garcia, 2006, p. 40)
This statement is not unusually propagandistic for a country under siege. Cuba had been attacked by the United States at the Bay of Pigs and the United States had put in place a trade embargo which attempted to strangle the Cuban economy.
What is clear is that revolutionary values were being reinforced at the same time as children were learning the basics of reading and writing. A Cuban refugee made the following comment about his children's education after the revolution: “Even our children were subjected to daily indoctrination” ('Call Me Gusano').
Communist values were reinforced through changes in the school curriculum. Teachers were not allowed to teach anything that contradicted or criticized the revolution. Teachers opposed to the Castro government, who went into exile, complained that the new textbooks were full of propaganda.
The history text for secondary schools omitted or maligned Cuban patriots. Carlos Manuel de Céspedus, hero of the War of Independence, was presented as a large landowner who went to war only to protect his own interests. Even the Spanish grammar book was full of propaganda. (Form teacher, quoted in Monahan & Gilmore, 1963, p. 140)
Children were taught to fight for Cuba; “If you died while fighting it meant you were a good revolutionary” (Garcia, 2006, p. 94). Children as young as three were taught to recognise pictures of Fidel Castro and other ‘good’ revolutionaries, like ‘Che’ Guevara, and were told to want to grow up to be, “just like Che” (Garcia, 2006, p. 119).
In school, children were taught that there was no God.One Cuban exile’s account on his primary school education is that the teacher would tell the children to shut their eyes, hold out their hands, and ask God for candy. When they opened their eyes there would be no candy. Then they were told to shut their eyes again and ask Papa Fidel for candy. When they opened their eyes, they were holding candy.
The teacher would then ask, “Who is more powerful, God or Papa Fidel?” ('Call Me Gusano'). Propaganda taught children that if they supported him, ‘Papa Fidel’ would supply them with whatever they needed. By getting inside the minds of impressionable children, Castro was ensuring he had the support of the next generation.
With the increase of the number of schools and the need to have more teachers, the quality of both dropped. There were many teachers teaching who had not received full qualifications, some of them only had finished sixth grade themselves. Teachers who would not adhere to the new laws on what was and what was not teachable were been fired (Fagen, 1968, p. 64). Many teachers opposed to the revolution left Cuba and become Cuban exiles (Garcia, 2006, Pg 174). This also contributed to the teaching shortage.
The commitment to expansion combined with the exodus of middle class professionals resulted in a shortage of trained personnel…The quality of Cuba’s new teachers would be modest, but at least there would be teachers. (Brenner, 1989, p. 445).
As the need for more schools also increased, the already limited resources, like textbooks, were stretched further. Garcia writes that he would have to share a textbook with three other children in his class (Garcia, 2006, Pg 53). Even today, many Cuban schools are equipped with the old fashioned blackboard, which in other countries was replaced by the whiteboard in the early 1990s (Cuban Education Guide). Due to the government’s ambitious goals on raising literacy rates and increasing the numbers of schools, the quality of teaching resources available in each school was compromised.
After the revolution, Castro’s government set about educational reform. During this time, school attendance was increased, as was the number of schools and teachers. Literacy rates rose nearly 40% and are now higher than the United States and Australia. The government put in place campaigns to achieve these goals, including sending many people out to rural areas to teach.
By making education free, Castro’s regime made it possible for all Cubans to become educated. Cuba began to ‘export’ education.On the Isle of Youth, boarding schools were built, to house and educate students from Africa and Latin America. However there were a number of negatives associated with this mass reform. Propaganda made its way into the classroom as children were taught to be loyal to Castro. The quality of teachers decreased, as did the resources. While many Cubans received a biased and limited education, it was an education at that. They were taught to read, write and, most importantly, learn.
Without Castro’s educational reform, it is likely that Cuba would still suffer from having a large uneducated population with the high illiteracy rates still endured by its neighbours.