Cuban Education and Its Challenges

Photo: Radio Rebelde

By Yasvily Méndez Paz

Official and alternative media have published various news items about the long-awaited rise in wages in the Cuban state-budgeted sector. Specific attention has been paid to the impact that the measure has had at all levels on the teaching profession, one of the most depressed lines of work in present-day Cuban society. It has been an act of justice for teachers and professors, whose unconditional dedication has endured, in spite of difficulties, broken illusions and unfulfilled dreams.

While the exodus of teachers continued to better-paid jobs in other sectors –both in Cuba and abroad–, the social disrepute of academic work increased, and lack of motivation affected quite a few teachers who remained steadfast in schools and universities. The Ministry of Education applied palliative measures, such as sending young professors from the eastern provinces to the west, graduating teachers in emergency programs and using university students to compensate for the shortage of academic personnel, among others, which did not provide a definitive solution to the problem. There was no tackling of the underlying causes in order to root the problem out completely.

For quite some time, the Government and the economists in Cuba had been struggling with a seemingly endless contradiction. Some believed that the rise in wages for the state-budgeted sector was unsustainable –in economic terms– without the support of domestic production in certain branches of the economy, while other theories held that it had an ideological and political impact and was a matter which could not be put off in Cuban society. For a long time, teachers had to implement their own strategies to survive; that’s why the long-awaited measure was a necessity, for their income levels were well below their social contribution and impact.

The return of thousands of teachers to the classrooms is one of the tangible results of the wage rise in Cuba. Official sources recognize that more than 8,000 teachers rejoined the educational sector for this 2019-20 academic year, which represents a school coverage of over 90%. Undoubtedly, these figures will enable full staffing in many schools and municipalities –an unheard-of situation for several decades– and the guarantee of quality in Cuban education.

The measure represents a form of social recognition for the workers in the educational sector, which will constitute an incentive for the students gaining admittance to Higher Education, an impact to be reflected in a greater enrolment for pedagogical courses. We cannot overlook that low enrolments for those university courses were the result of the loss of prestige of the educational sector and of the little appreciation society had for the teaching profession. At the very moment in which policies are being adopted for the restriction of imports and the search for an increase in exports, the measure has brought about a significant impact in society by reducing the levels of consumption for certain products.

Its results have been palpable, and it would have alleviated the exodus of teachers had it been applied in another historical context, but we didn’t allow ourselves to be cheered by siren calls. The measure itself will not fulfill all expectations if no solutions are given to other material problems affecting the more depressed sectors of Cuban society. I make reference to sensitive questions such as housing, footwear, food and clothing, among others. The wage rise brings relief, that’s true, but it doesn’t solve the problem permanently, something which has been admitted by President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez himself.

While material changes are important, the educational sector urgently needs substantial transformations in the leadership of its ministries. Between ‘fears, means and modes’, the antiquated methods of bureaucracy have not changed in recent years, and the levels of impunity have gone over the limit. Although there has been criticism in the social media of the highly flawed rant by the Cuban Senior Deputy Minister of Higher Education, I come back to the topic because I am worried that the rise in wages be taken as a sine qua non condition to impose ways of thinking attached to forms of fainthearted pigeonholing which fragment Cuban society.

For her part, the Minister of Education, Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, published in her Twitter feed: ‘Those who do not live in Cuba have no right to criticize us’. As I responded at the time: ‘We should only ask ourselves: would we be here today without criticism? Let us reflect on the importance of criticism, and do away with the adjective “constructive”. Pure and simple criticism, that of which those of us who carry in our hearts the conquests of the Teacher should have no fear’. Those of us who live outside of Cuba today also made significant contributions while we were there. We are as Cuban as the royal palm tree, and nothing and no one shall deprive us of the right and the duty to desire what’s best for our country.

(Translated from the original)

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