Cuba: Return to the Classrooms / Iván García
Ivan Garcia, 5 September 2016 — After getting up at dawn and after
waiting in line for two hours in the rain, Alicia, 37, a mother of a
junior high school student was able to buy her son a uniform for the new
"This year they changed the method of distributing the uniforms. Before
you could buy one in any store in the municipality designated for such
things. Now there is one store for every neighborhood. The State grants
two uniforms in seventh grade, one in eighth and none in the ninth. It
is a headache to get the exact size," says Alicia, while putting the
uniform in her old Singer sewing machine.
The official price of a uniform is the equivalent of ten cents on the US
dollar. In elementary school, the blouse or shirt is white and the skirt
or shorts are wine red. In junior high the blouse or shirt continues to
be white, but the skirt or shorts is mustard yellow. And in high school,
the colors change, bright blue blouse or shirt and dark blue skorts or
In Cuba wearing the uniform is obligatory at all levels of schooling,
except in university. But the majority of the parents complain about the
limited quantity of uniforms awarded by the State, not taking into
account individual growth.
"It's a single uniform for the whole year. My sons are a bola de churre*
when they get to school. The solution is to buy them abroad and they
cost between 100 and 150 Cuban pesos (around $6 US), says Ernesto,
father of two boys in elementary school.
For families like Angel's, owner of an old 1954 Ford that he uses as a
private taxi, purchasing uniforms on the black market is not a problem.
"Every year I buy my kids three or four extra uniforms. I spend 150 CUC
(about $150 US) in uniforms alone each year."
But the lack of uniforms is only one of the many inconveniences and
added costs that face parents on the Island. We ask Carmen how much
money she spends during the school year, and with the precision of an
accountant, she offers the details.
"Ten convertible pesos (CUC) for two uniforms for my daughter. Thirty
CUC for a backpack. Fifteen for portfolio because now the girls like to
carry bags. A pair of Converse, 80 CUC. Twelve CUC to buy notebooks in
hard currency, because the ones the government hands out are poor
quality. To this I have to add 40 to 50 convertible pesos a month in
snacks and lunches," says Carmen.
In Cuba, excepting in elementary school, the schools don't offer lunch.
"In primary they serve lunch rations at school dining rooms, and in
junior high they get a midday snack, a piece of bread with sausage or
hamburger and a soy yogurt. But due to the terrible preparation, a good
portion of the students don't eat it," says Eusebio, an education
methodologist in a Havana municipality.
Until high school, students have two class sessions, morning and
afternoon, and usually stay in school about eight hours. Some parents,
like Miguel Antonio, gives 40 Cuban pesos to his son every morning to
buy lunch in a cafe near the school. Others, like Maritza, prepare
snacks and lunch in a thermos Monday through Friday for her daughter,
all of which is loaded into an extra bag.
"The students look like Alpinists. They carry enormous bags full of
books and food. I don't know how they don't end up with scoliosis,"
comments Sandra, a medical specialist and mother of a son in the 8th grade.
On Monday September 5, when the 2016-17 school year begins in Havana,
more than 1,700,000 students will head to classrooms at different levels
of education throughout the island. According to the newspaper Granma,
94.2% of the teaching positions are filled. The provinces with the
highest deficit of teachers are Havana, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Matanzas
and Ciego de Avila.
For a long time, being a teacher in Cuba has been a dignified
profession. Osleidys, a native of the eastern province Guantanamo, some
600 miles from Havana, is a teacher more by necessity than by vocation.
"After I finished high school the only career I could study was
teaching, and I didn't even finish. Because of the deficit in teachers
the Minister of Education was forced to hire teachers without sufficient
The positive part, for Osleidys, is that she was able get a permit from
the authorities to live in Havana, "Because Law 217 prevents anyone from
settling in the capital except for teachers, builders and police, so we
were able to move here."
Very young teachers, almost the same age as their students, enroll in
teaching programs to escape military service. A Cuban teacher draws a
salary that fluctuates between the equivalent of 20 and 35 dollars a
month. Professors at the university level earn something more. And they
receive bonuses from the State.
An officer in the armed forces or the Ministry of the Interior could go
on vacations with their families to recreations centers subsidized by
the regime, they have the right to a house and other material benefits.
But in Cuba, unlike in Finland, the model nation for education, teaching
is among the worse professions.
Recently, Education Minister Ena Elsa Velaquez recognized that not
everything is ready for the coming school year. After a tour or the 15
provinces and the special municipality of the Isla de la Juvented,
declared that more than 390 schools were in critical condition and the
students are being relocated.
For his part, Deputy Rolando Ruiz reported that the Ministry of
Education (MINED) has 17.5 million convertible pesos to secure key
resources, including science laboratories, workshops and sports equipment.
Teaching in Cuba is the job of the government. But the steady economic
crisis that has gone on for 27 years, has caused parents, grandparents
and other relatives to take on the tasks inherent to the state.
"In theory, MINED doesn't accept that parents paint the classrooms,
repair the desks, buy the fans and donate brooms and detergent to clean
the bathrooms. But under the table, the teachers accept it because state
maintenance crews, at best, only give a coat of paint to the front of
the school," says the mother of three children at three different levels
Sometimes not even the basics get done. Eugenio Maria de Hostos High
School, in the neighborhood of La Vibora, has been unpainted and
inadequately maintained for years. Several classrooms have leaks and the
uneven floor of the patio cries out for repairs. "Last year, thanks to
the pressure exerted by social networks and independent journalists,
they changed my son's classroom. When it rained it was like a river,"
says a father.
Five hundred yards from the school, in Monaco park, there is a wireless
internet zone. However, in Eugenio Maria de Hostos, as in the rest of
the country's schools, except for universities, there is no connection
to the World Wide Web and the computer room is ramshackle and has only
three old second generation computers in appalling conditions.
"In 2015 it was said that they would deliver tablets and have internet
access. But it was all talk. ETECSA, the Cuban communications monopoly,
likes to boast that it provides a social service. But despite living in
the 21st century where the Internet and new technologies are not a whim,
but rather a necessity, it is demonstrated that the government is only
interested in building things that earn money for them, like WiFi
zones," says Omar, a computer engineer.
For this new school year, internet in all schools will have to keep waiting.
Diario Las Américas, 3 de septiembre de 2016.
*Translator's note: A negative nickname that refers to Fidel Castro — it
roughly refers to raggedy/dirty.
Source: Cuba: Return to the Classrooms / Iván García – Translating Cuba