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Educational Policy in Socialist Cuba: the Lessons of Forty Years of Reform

By Sheryl Lutjens

[The following article appeared early in 2000 year in Spanish translation in the book Cuba: Construyendo Futuro, published by the Spanish Foundation for Marxist Research.]

Within the difficulties of the economic crisis that beset Cuba in the 1990s, producing what is called the "Special Period in a Time of Peace," Fidel Castro and other leaders have proudly pointed out that education remains a priority in Cuba. In a February 1993 speech to more than 5,500 Latin American educators attending the Pedagogía ‘93 conference in Havana, Castro asked:

How can it be explained that a country that has lost 75% of its imports, a country that has to work with 40% of the fuel that it had disposed of — and all as a consequence of the disappearance of the socialist camp and the disintegration of the USSR, countries with which we had 85% of our trade and just prices for our products — how is it possible that with this terrible blow our economy has suffered, not a single school has been closed, not a single child has been left without a teacher....(1)

At the start of the 1997-98 term, Cuba had more than 12,600 schools, teaching and support staff of more than 263,200 and some 2,344,000 students from day care through the university. Educational expenditures equaled 10% of the national product, supporting over 270,000 boarding students (not counting higher education), thousands of teachers released for upgrading of their qualifications, and 425 centers for special education.(2) "Not a single school has been closed" is an official position that warrants careful examination.

Renowned for the provision of extensive — and expensive — opportunities for formal education, Cuban educational policy has reflected the major shifts in development strategy from 1959 through the Special Period. A revolution and the subsequent embrace of socialist goals redefined the scope and the purpose of formal education, giving it a prominent role in the process of economic, political, and social transformation. The expansion of access to education was the overriding aim of the 1960s. The perfeccionamiento phase that began in the 1970s addressed the quality of education, as well as the development of secondary and higher education and the preparation of technical expertise. With the reform process known as Rectification that began in the mid-1980s, the policies of perfeccionamiento continuo reconfirmed the commitment to quality and focused on the curriculum, technical and vocational education, pedagogy, and decentralisation. If maintaining the educational system is an urgent commitment of the Special Period, a review of the three phases of educational policy after 1959 will summarise the goals and the measurable gains in enrollments, facilities, and capacity that continue to distinguish Cuban education.

The literature on education in Cuba reveals a widely shared appreciation of the uncommon accomplishments of the revolution’s policies, despite some notable differences in conclusions about the nature and outcomes of socialist reforms. The pace of research and reporting has slowed, however, and in contrast to the attention devoted to the first decades of change, little has been written about the reforms of perfeccionamiento continuo. Cuba’s number one ranking in a recent regional UNESCO study of the quality of education in Latin America and the Caribbean will surely motivate more serious attention to the Cuban schools, inviting reflection on forty years of educational reform. Indeed, asking — and answering — questions about education is crucial in understanding the 1990s. What is education’s relationship to economic development and, in the Special Period, to survival and recovery? What are the outcomes of socialisation after four decades of revolution? A review of the old and newer issues of education highlights these and other questions, using the radical aspirations of the revolution, the ongoing participation of the Cuban people in formal schooling, and a changing world order to explore the place of education in Cuba’s strategy for the 1990s and beyond.

Educational reform, 1959-1999

The educational system of contemporary Cuba is markedly different from that of the pre-revolutionary republic. From the growth in per capita state spending to the emphasis on vocational training and socialist consciousness, quantitative and qualitative change resulted from policies that that altered the purpose and the process of education.

The Cuban revolution inherited a million illiterates and an average level of schooling of less than third grade, though the ministry’s budget in 1957-58 was 79.4 million pesos. The poor performance of the public education system established during the US occupation of Cuba after the Spanish-Cuban-American war reflected the economic, political, and social relations of neo-colonial development. Despite an initial expansion, in 1955 only 51% of Cuban children were enrolled in primary school — less than in 1925; more than half of Cuba’s rural children lacked schools, though there were thousands of unemployed teacher and 830 private primary and secondary schools in 1958.(3) The educational system served as a source of graft for the politics of the Cuban republic, and though Cuban ranked third in Latin America in enrollments in higher education, training bore little relationship to the needs of the island’s agricultural economy. If formal education reproduced the inequalities of race, gender, and geography that ordered the class relations of republican society, education and the schools also figured prominently in the struggle for sovereignty that began in the colonial period. From the 19th century writings of José Martí to the promises of Fidel Castro, better education was part of a nationalist agenda in Cuba.

Extending education and the ‘Cuban model’: 1959-1970

The nationalist goals of the Cuban revolution included sovereignty, economic development, and social justice, each of which was supported by educational reform. Extending education was the first priority of educational policy in the 1960s. The expansion of education required an unprecedented marshaling of resources, including the appropriation of military facilities for schools and the creation of thousands of other classrooms, a call for more teachers, and housecleaning in the ministry of education [MINED]. A "revolution" in education was part of a decade of tumultuous change associated with nationalist goals and, after 1961, the Cuban model of socialist development.

School enrollments grew rapidly with the increase in facilities and personnel. The number of schools more than doubled by 1970-71 (to 17 539), while the number of teachers rose from 22 798 in 1958-59 to 121 506. Enrollments climbed from 811 300 in 1958-59 to 2 392 500 in 1970-71, or 93.5% of children aged 6-14.(4) Policy specifically targeted the disparity between rural and urban opportunities, as well as other deeply rooted problems of access. Special programs for peasant girls, domestics, and prostitutes began in the early 1960s, for example, as did the organisation of day care centers. Institutional life was officially opened to Cubans of every color, while nationalisation in 1961 closed the private schools that served religion and the wealthy. The egalitarian momentum in education required state support; by 1967 there were 240 000 scholarship students.

The Literacy Campaign of 1961 symbolised the importance of education within the revolution. The massive effort to eradicate illiteracy involved mobilizing 268 420 literacy teachers, including more than 100 000 youth. Of the 979 207 illiterates identified, 707 212 achieved basic skills by December; the post-literacy follow-up started in 1962 became the core of Cuba’s ongoing "worker-farmer" program of adult education. According to the UNESCO study of Cuba’s experience, the campaign was "foreseen and carried out as a great popular revolutionary cultural movement"; it was "not a miracle, but rather a difficult conquest obtained through work, technique and organisation."(5) The methods of the Literacy Campaign contributed to the practices associated with the Cuban model.

Education responded to the idealism that distinguished Cuban socialism in the 1960s. Already politicised by early nationalist measures, the expansion of formal schooling became part of a vision of the transformation of Cuban society that centered in Che Guevara’s socialist "new man". "To build communism, a new man must be created simultaneously with the material base," wrote Guevara, and to achieve this, "society as a whole must become a huge school.(6)" The Cuban model stressed values of cooperation, discipline, sacrifice, and moral motivation, calling for participation in defending and developing the revolution and international solidarity. The idea of integral education eventually included work and military training, while mass organisations mobilised the participation of the Cuban people, including students. The Pioneers organisation emerged in 1961 as a selective organisation for primary-age children, for example, and in 1966 it became a mass organisation deeply integrated with daily life in the schools. The organisation created for secondary students at the start of the 1970s [Federación de Estudiantes de Enseñanza Media — FEEM] formalised early efforts suspended in the last part of the 1960s, while the Federation of University Students [FEU] created in the 1920s organised those in higher education. The Association of Rebel Youth founded in 1960 was the forerunner of the youth branch of the Communist Party (Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas — UJC).

Educational policy also reflected the practical necessities and constraints of the first decade of revolutionary change. International and domestic conflict over the revolution’s policies catalyzed the exodus of thousands of Cuba’s professionals and trained personnel in the first few years, including half of Cuba’s teachers. The three state universities reopened (they were closed in 1956), followed by a university reform in 1962. Higher education, however, took second seat to the spread of basic education. "Emergency" measures thus typified the initial response to missing or lost expertise; a 6th grade education was sufficient for much-needed primary teachers and political credentials qualified those who would manage the changing economy. The problem of expertise was not entirely ignored, however, and by 1971 the ministry of education oversaw 95 centers of technical and professional education. Nevertheless, more characteristic of this period were workplace education, technical training managed by sectoral ministries, and an emerging relationship with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries (7).

The combination of work and study that emerged in the 1960s as an enduring feature of Cuban education demonstrated the interplay of necessity with the nationalist and socialist ideals underpinning educational reform. A formal "Schools to the Countryside" program began in mid-decade, preceded by the integration of work into university studies and the participation of students and teachers in agriculture as early as 1962. The logic of joining productive work and academic study — combining mental and manual labor — drew from Guevara’s "new man," as well as the much older ideas of José Martí. The mobilisation for a ten-million-ton sugar harvest in 1970 underscored the idealism of this first phase of Cuban socialism. In contrast to the achievements of the Literacy Campaign and educational expansion, however, the lack of success in the 1970 harvest tempered hopes for a rapid transformation of the economy, politics, and the Cuban people.

Perfeccionamiento and institutionalisation: 1970-1986

The more pragmatic development strategy after 1970 altered the Cuban model and produced a second period of educational reform. A practical concern with efficiency surfaced in the use of material incentives, a new planning system, and a closer relationship with the USSR, while a constitution, the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, and the creation of a political/administrative system called Poder Popular announced the institutionalisation of Cuba’s socialist state. Changes in education began with the stock-taking criticisms of the First National Congress of Education and Culture in April 1971, followed by an extensive study of the system that included Soviet specialists. Launched in 1975-76, perfeccionamiento centered on improving the system created in the 1960s.

Perfeccionamiento focused attention on the organisation and unity of formal education, introducing the first efforts at educational planning. The 13 grades of schooling became 12; the primary level of education included two cycles, with students remaining with the same teacher in grades one through four. Teacher training was stressed and reorganisation of the curriculum required change in 1 350 school programs and more than 600 textbooks.(8) A separate ministry of Higher education emerged in 1976, while the arrangements of Poder Popular redistributed some of the responsibilities of the ministry of education to the municipal and provincial levels. Growth continued. Castro’s call for future teachers produced the Manuel Ascunce Domenech Detachment and more than 1 500 educational centers were built during the 1970s.

A new emphasis on educational efficiency reflected the economic pragmatism of the institutionalisation period. Retention and promotion rates served as standards as perfeccionamiento addressed the problems accompanying the earlier expansion, including the 400,000 children not attending school at the end of the 1960s. While only 14.4% of those who started primary school in 1961-62 finished, the figure for those beginning in 1975-76 was 71.5%. Retention also improved at the secondary level and promotion rates increased, though some rural and urban differences persisted.(9) Secondary education expanded as a result of the spread of schooling in the 1960s and the policies of the 1970s. Enrollments soared from 272 500 in 1970-71 to 1146500 by 1980-81, with a 400% expansion of teaching staff.(10)

Changing economic strategy produced a reorientation toward technical and professional education. The stress on technical training included preparation of qualified workers and mid-level technicians. A deepening of the work/study principle took various forms, one of which was more systematic vocational guidance. More obvious was the start of the "Schools in the Countryside" program that relocated basic secondary (grades 7-9) and pre-university students (grades 10-12) to boarding schools where labor was a fixed part of the curriculum. By 1981-82, 34.9% of secondary students (288 846) were enrolled in costly new rural schools.(11) The inauguration in 1974 of the Lenin School, a special Preuniversity Vocational Institute for the Study of the Exact Sciences (IPVCE), announced an innovation that would later spread throughout the island. Joining schools for art, for sports, and for military education, the selective science schools introduced elements of competition and ranking within the diversification of the 1970s.

Higher education expanded markedly in the perfeccionamiento period. University enrolments were 2 100 in 1958-59, 16 000 in 1958-59, and 35,100 in 1970. The four existing centers of higher education mushroomed into 39 by 1980, with more than 10 000 faculty and 200,000 students. The study of economics demonstrates well the new relationship of higher education to development strategy and planning. Enrollment in the Institute of Economics created in 1962 actually shrank from 4 818 in 1964-65 to 1338 in 1969-70. By the start of the 1980s, however, some 7000 had been graduated. And between 1976 and 1980, 10101 graduated from the new national and provincial schools of economic management.(12) The political purposes of education continued within the institutionalisation process. The socialist constitution and party policy supplied the official foundations of free and universal education, to be provided by the state and based in a Marxist-Leninist scientific worldview. Despite the turn to technical expertise, merit, and a more orthodox socialism, egalitarian ambitions persisted. Entrance to the university depended still on political commitment, as well as academic marks and relevant career choice, and a 1973 law required several years of social service after graduation. The ongoing commitment to adult education spawned campaigns called the Battle for the Sixth Grade and Battle for the Ninth Grade; in 1980-81, 277 000 were enrolled in adult education; and courses for workers constituted 54% of university enrollments in 1983-84 (compared to 15% in 1970-71).(13) Women advanced within the educational system, counting for 59% of regular university enrollments in 1983-84 (and 47.5% in courses for workers) and making inroads into traditionally male fields of study.(14)

Besides the closer relationship of economic and educational policy and the growth of post-primary education, cumulative advances included a capacity for educational research and the publication in 1984 of a formal statement of Cuban pedagogical theory and practice.(15) Achievements did not preclude the recognition of ongoing problems, however. Manifest in Castro’s speech at the February 1986 meeting of the 3rd party congress (and in the discussion at the deferred session in December), official criticisms admitted where quality remained a concern in the performance of students, of teachers, and of the system as a whole.

Perfeccionamiento continuo and the Special Period: 1986-1999

The third and current period of educational reform addresses old and newer problems within the shifting strategies that characterise the Special Period. Rectification — the campaign to rectify errors — formally began in 1986 by targeting deficiencies in economic performance, including the neglect of the social and political dimensions of production. Reasserting the idealism of the Cuban model of the 1960s and the pragmatism of the 1970s, rectification directed both toward correcting problems and then to survival as the crisis conditions of the 1990s produced the Special Period. The loss of protected economic relations with the socialist camp at the end of the 1980s and the subsequent intensification of the US embargo precipitated a 75% drop in imports and a related 35% decline in the national product. Economic adjustments have included an opening to foreign investment and tourism, as well as new forms of agricultural property, legalisation of individual economic activity and the use of the US dollar, and fiscal reform. There has been some economic recuperation; in 1996 imports equaled 45.3% of the 1989 figure and growth was 7.8, the the latter has since slowed (it was 1.2% in 1998).(16) Still, 1.4 million tourists visited Cuba in 1998 and commercial relations included 3 000 firms in 143 different countries. In contrast to global trends, the political goals of reform since the mid-1980s have aimed to expand democracy within existing institutions. The changes of perfeccionamiento continuo thus reflect Cuba’s ongoing commitment to socialism, as well as reforms associated with the fourth party congress (1991), constitutional revisions (1992), and the altered material conditions of the 1990s.

Rectification called quickly upon education, beginning with the participation of 170,000 educators in Party-organised discussions and an initial surge in construction of new educational facilities. Following the 11th and 12th National Seminars for municipal and provincial educational officials in 1987 and 1989, 19 areas of work outlined the project of perfeccionamiento continuo. Although the resource scarcities of the Special Period placed limits on new construction and have increasingly affected the functioning of existing schools, a stress on research, the intended transformation of formal pedagogy, and decentralisation are distinctive dimensions of current reforms.

education has had a vital place in Cuba’s economic strategies since 1986. The search for import-substituting innovations, the food program for domestic self-sufficiency, and the stress on bio-medical and other non-traditional exports have all relied on the accomplishments and the potential of the educational system. At the start of the 1990s, the average level of schooling was more than eighth grade; one of every eight workers was a mid-level technician, one of 15 had a university education, and Cuba had more than 30000 university-trained economists and 4 200 with post-graduate degrees.(17) At the end of the 1990s, there are more than 600,000 graduates of higher education (some 5.4% of the population), the ministry of Higher education supervises 57 teaching institutions and 70 research centers, and 35% of graduates are participating in some form of post-graduate training.(18) Even the development of international tourism in search of hard-currency earnings counts on education. A bachillerato is required for young people’s employment in tourism, and there are more than a dozen polytechnical schools offering instruction in service specialties and foreign language under the National Institute of Tourism and the Cubanacán Corporation.

The strong emphasis on scientific research characteristic of perfeccionamiento continuo has produced some noticeable changes. The practical problems of socialist development have long oriented the work of the now substantial Cuban research establishment. In 1989, there were 32,614 research and development personnel, though capacities tended to be heavily concentrated in Ciudad de La Habana and La Habana provinces.(19) Scientific "poles" to coordinate R&D efforts now exist throughout the island — 465 institutions, groups, or units constituting three thematic (biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, industry, and humanities) and 12 territorial poles;(20) and a new union was created for science workers. In the schools, the stress on research reaches from curricular and organisational reform at the university level to the extracurricular activity of the Pioneros.

Productive work remains important at all levels in the educational system. A national command to better coordinate the schools-to-the-countryside program was created in summer 1992, for example, while the mobilisation so characteristic of Cuban strategies is also apparent in education. In 1992, primary students participated for the first time in organised summer activities similar to the mobilisations sponsored for many years by the other student organisations. The emphasis on efficient use of human and scarce material resources means a sparing mobilisation of those who volunteer, however; younger students are not called to agricultural work and instead participate in the cleaning of parks, collection for recycling, and similar activities. Especially significant is the redirection of secondary students to polytechnical schools for vocational training in agricultural specialties and a related rethinking of the university track. More than 100 new agricultural schools were created in the first part of the 1990s (they counted for 119 of the 325 polytechnical institutes in 1997-98),(21) while educational planning has reduced pre-university enrollments from 60% to less than 40% of higher secondary studies. The official view is that the system had become an "inverted pyramid," top heavy with university students. Indeed, enrollments in higher education dropped from a high of 310 000 in 1987-88 to 121 000 in 1998-99.(22) Improving the integration of work with the academic schedule is also an objective of current reforms.

The political goals of rectification are apparent in the reforms of perfeccionamiento continuo. A stress on the ideological and political responsibilities of education typifies reforms in general, while the concern with quality has involved alteration of evaluation procedures and a general streamlining of the curriculum. Specific changes in the content of basic education include more emphasis on Cuban history and the introduction of civic education, reflecting Rectification’s appeal to the domestic roots of Cuban socialism. In the latter part of the 1990s, more emphasis has been placed on the formation of values, including the creation of new school-level Cátedras de Formación de Valores in 1998-99. Also distinctive is a shift in the official view of pedagogy that indicates a desire to alter authority relations in education. Perfeccionamiento continuo called for an end to "authoritarian" classroom practices, rote learning, and "formalistic" transmission of knowledge, as well as for change in the rules that ordered daily life in the schools, including norms of discipline and dress. The emphasis is on active and participatory learning, to be facilitated with creative teaching methods. More regard for Cuba’s own educational traditions is apparent — from the articles on historic figures in the ministry’s journal Educación, to the 1988 publication of a ten-year study of an experimental school that began in 1970,(23) to the launching of a new journal called Pedagogía Cubana in 1989. The shift in pedagogy has included exploration of creativity and intelligence in students, higher standards for teachers, and sometimes a critique of overzealous acceptance of scientific socialist pedagogy.

An intended decentralisation of educational administration has promoted the new perspective on pedagogy. As part of larger efforts to improve the functioning of the socialist state, decentralisation in the ministry of education has meant augmenting local level responsibilities. Organisationally, this involved more autonomy for schools, principals, and teachers, as well as a necessary relaxing of centralised control over schedules, testing, course materials, and the employment and evaluation of teachers. Under a new minister of education, some three thousand local, provincial, and national administrators returned to the classroom in 1991 for two years of work at the base of the system. In the different conditions of higher education, decentralizing change includes the reduction of the number of majors (from 104 in 1980 to 78), modifications of the curriculum (for a broader preparation, as well as to provide content associated with new economic needs), new arrangements for bringing students and faculty into the research process, and efforts at self-financing in dollars. In 1997, the ministry of Higher education invested a million dollars in computers, with another $250 000 planned for 1998.(24) Besides the clear implications for teaching, shifting the locus of decision-making is a pragmatic response to the resource constraints that characterise education in the Special Period.

Past achievements are a foundation for the desired improvements in the educational system. Perfeccionamiento continuo’s call for change expects much from teachers, for example; the qualifications of teaching personnel have improved over time and higher standards for entrance into teacher training are now in place, as are more rigorous evaluation procedures. New pedagogical pre-universities were launched in the second part of the 1990s — with more than 11 000 students in 1997, and a substantial salary reform for educational personnel was announced in February 1999. education is still promised to all and in the Special Period maintaining the system has been as important as improving it. Adult education responded to energy limitations by reinstituting weekend and daytime classes, for instance, while recent ministry efforts include educational programs that motivate energy conservation in schools, homes, and communities. Fiscal reforms have included new costs for parents, such as the monthly payment for school lunches (a sliding scale of fees for day care has been in place for years, however, and parents must buy uniforms for their children), and for university students. The spread of school gardens to supplement food supplies for students, community drives to assure the millions of pencils and notebooks needed each term, and detailed media reports about production of school furniture and uniforms are clear signs of what maintaining education has meant.

The multiple goals of perfeccionamiento continuo have another foundation in the constitutional reforms of July 1992. The more visible changes to the constitution include those intended to facilitate foreign trade and investment — including the forms of property, and to pave the way for the direct election of national representatives in February 1993. Constitutional modifications also altered essential elements in the revolution’s official definition of education, however. Substantial formal responsibility was returned to the family and the new constitution identifies the bases of educational and cultural policies in science and technology, Marxist and martiano ideology, and progressive pedagogical traditions, both Cuban and "universal."(25) Yet Communist education remains the goal, education is still basically free, and educational achievements are proudly celebrated in official discussion of Cuba’s adjustment to the 1990s.

Issues in the study of Cuban education

The overview of revolutionary reforms suggests a range of important issues in the study of Cuban education, many of which have been raised in the literature. Given the cumulative nature of reforms and the significance of education within the goals of the revolution, the changing circumstances of perfeccionamiento continuo call attention to what we do and don’t know about Cuban education. Although scholarship on education has been somewhat removed from the deep ideological divisions and controversies in Cubanology,(26) the old and newer issues of education are important for current debates about Cuba’s future. Focusing on political economy, socialisation, youth, and centralisation, it is possible to see where answering questions about education can contribute to a better understanding of the process and prospects of reforming socialism in the 1990s.

The political economy of education

The relationship of educational reform to economic and political change has been a general concern of the literature on Cuban education. Viewed narrowly, investment and developmental outcomes chart the economic issues of education. Viewed broadly, the focus on change expands to include political goals, as well as the social and structural dynamics of the development process. The political economy of education thus suggests a comprehensive or inclusive perspective on the evolution of education within the Cuban revolution. While most of the scholarship on Cuban education might easily fit within this loose definition of political economy, methodological choices about what to include and how remain important for explaining the nature of change.

Current strategy and the escalating difficulties of the Special Period highlight the discretely economic issues of education. Whether viewed as a necessity or a choice, the revolution’s huge investment in education is indisputably significant. Bowles calculated that in 1968-69, about 20% of Cuba’s total productive capacity was turned to formal schooling; by 1989 Cuba’s total educational expenditure amounted to 6.7% of GNP and 12.8% of total governmental expenditure, according to UNESCO statistics.(27) Cuban figures show that, within the conditions of economic decline, the peso education budget (gastos corrientes) was 8.5% of national product and 22% of the state gastos corrientes in 1990, 10.4% and 20.2% in 1994, and 10% and 19.4% in 1996, respectively, while 5.6 million of the more than 15 million dollars budgeted for 1998 went to uniforms and work books.(28) And health and education counted for 39% of the 1999 state budget (3.6% more than in 1998).(29)

What about the return to the revolution’s tremendous investment in education? This is an old question, yet it still lacks a definitive answer. In the past, the expensive schools in the countryside were sometimes used to discuss the return to — and rationality of — spending in education; the cost of construction and annual maintenance could be directly compared to the value of agricultural or other production by students.(30) Other indicators of the contribution of formal education to the economy might include the internal efficiency of the schools, the educational profile of the labor force, and the effectiveness of enrollment planning and vocational guidance mechanisms. Yet rigorous assessment of education’s immediate and longer-term contribution to a socialist economy may be difficult, as the exclusion of Cuba from the Inter-American Development Bank’s 1993 report on human resources in Latin America suggests.(31) Quantifying the outcomes of universal primary education in a socialist Cuba is as problematic as figuring the effects of a rise in university-trained personnel in the sugar sector from 3 467 in 1980 to 15,042 in 1991.(32)

If the costs and benefits of socialist education are hard to calculate with precision, current conditions and reforms present some landmarks for consideration. Day care centers that assist working mothers are costly, for example, and reforms of the 1990s included raising the age of entrance from 45 days to six months. The results of research between 1986 and 1990 included new products valued at 1.2 billion pesos, while in 1992, activities within higher education earned more than two million dollars in foreign currency that was used to purchase books, laboratory equipment, and other educational materials.(33) In 1998, primary students who participated in summer volunteer work collected recyclables worth 98,500 pesos.(34) In terms of Cuba’s educational infrastructure, at the start of the 1993-94 term, seven new educational centers were opened at a cost of one million each, including two special schools and an art school in Ciego de Avila province, though demographic shifts and changing emphases in educational policy have resulted in closing unneeded schools. Some boarding schools have been converted into housing, while others have been reopened reopened in response to recent increases in secondary enrollments. Only 4.8% of Cuba’s preuniversities are urban schools and 21% of basic secondaries are also in the countryside; televisions, mattresses, and other supplies for these schools are crucial costs in education.

The crisis-induced displacement of workers in the 1990s, explained by the growth in unemployment and a conscious rationalisation of the state sector, makes the matching of education — and graduates — with the needs of the economy more pressing than ever. "Can We Develop Without Manual Labor?" asked a 1991 newspaper article; education answered with the stress on vocational and agricultural education and related shifts in enrollment patterns that include the downsizing of higher education. The dilemmas of employing a highly-educated work force are serious in the conditions of economic crisis. One critic concludes that "populist" educational policy was a mistake that contributed to the current problem of surplus labor; "far too much emphasis was placed training educated manpower for nonmanual occupations that the country cannot productively employ."(35) Reports of 1992-93 university graduates indicated that 97% were placed (1 000 in new scientific poles and 6 365 in "priority sectors"), with 272 joining the new reserve of those waiting for placement; in a September 1998 interview, the minister of Higher education noted that of 19 000 recent graduates, only 200 awaited placement.(36) Unemployment was 7% at the end of 1998 and 98% of the 155 000 workers rationalised July 1990-July 1998 had been relocated, according to the minister of Labor and Social Security, who reported the possibilities of employment of graduates en adiestramiento as 73% compared to 45% in 1996. He and others have pointed out the differential effects on women, who constitute 66.5% of technical and professional employees.(37)

There are other difficulties, however, including the placement of secondary graduates and the migration of professionals to the newly internationalised sectors of the economy. The secretary of the UJC explained in November 1998 that many graduates of polytechnicals do not find work, mentioning gastronomy and economy in particular, while those trained in agricultural polytechnicals frequently do not accept what is offered; in Ciudad de La Habana, for example, only 44% of those graduating in February 1999 were placed.(38) New teachers are guaranteed placement, however; university slots for teacher training remain relatively abundant (35 068 enrolled in 22 specialties in 1998-99) and pedagogical brigades to motivate future teachers resurfaced in 1993 in Villa Clara and later throughout the island. Yet the movement toward tourism and other dollar-based sectors propelled by the decline of real salaries includes educational personnel, especially in the two Havana provinces where the presence of 3rd-5th years students at the head of classrooms is marked. The salary reform of early 1999 made significant upward adjustments, and according to the media, the worrisome exodus of teachers had been halted by April.

Broadening the scope in the search for answers to questions about schooling’s relationship to a socialist economy recasts the facts of education in contemporary Cuba. While most work on Cuban education has recognised the radical redefinition of the ends and the means of education, descriptive analysis has been more characteristic than theory building. There is a strand in the literature that has laid claim to a critical political economy tradition, however. Writing about the 1960s, Bowles acknowledged Cuba’s socialist goals and analyzed education in terms of the forces and social relations of production and the correspondence principle — the extent to which the formal and informal practices of education "correspond" with the socialist relations of production, including family and childrearing practices, as well as relations in the workplace.(39) Socialism’s egalitarian, collective orientation is thus counterposed to the hierarchy, competition, and individualism of capitalist education, while the revolutionary context and socialist goals are integral parts of the analysis. Political economy perspectives variously include ideology, politics, the state, and international factors.(40)


That education has a socializing function in every society is accepted wisdom. What socialisation means in the conditions of revolutionary change in Cuba is a crucial and more controversial matter. Competing conclusions about values, social practices, and the creation of "new socialist people" suggest different positions on the purposeful use of education as an agent of change. With a paucity of relevant research and a related tendency to use anecdotal evidence to settle the questions of socialisation, earlier studies and first-hand accounts of students and schools maintain an important place in the literature on Cuban education.(41) The extensive reach of state-directed change creates some of the prominent issues of socialisation and re/socialisation in the current period, including those related to what Paulston called an "epistemological revolution," contrasting the "use of scientific method" with "the general Latin American preference for more traditional, fatalistic, and mystical ways of knowing...."(42)

Education in Cuba consists of a complex network of organised activities intended to educate within and outside the schools. Mass organisations such as the Committees for Defense of the Revolution [CDR] and the Federation of Cuban Women [FMC] have organised educational programs for their membership and have also contributed directly to the functioning of the schools. The FMC, moreover, held initial responsibility for special programs for women and for creating and staffing day care centers. The unions were pivotal in the Battles for the 6th and 9th Grades, as well as the padrino system in which workplaces sponsor local schools. Student organisations, of course, have their place in this network; the Pioneers, the FEEM, and the FEU promote academic performance, work, extracurricular activities, and self-management, while the UJC also organises within the upper-secondary and higher education. The mass organisations and their contribution to education have received little systematic attention, however.(43) The educational experience in Cuba also includes cultural activities and sports. Dance, music, literature, art and the mass media have all served to transmit and translate new values and norms. The state’s sports policy stresses physical education and popular participation, as well as international competition. By March 1992, for example, more than 45 000 book titles had been published, 40% of them for formal education, and special sports schools may help explain Cuba’s standing in international competition — including the 31 medals in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Has re/socialisation succeeded and in what ways? Answers vary and claims about the nature and process of value change push in different directions. One critic calls Cuba’s schools-in-the-countryside "a form of slave labor" and concludes that "in spite of heavy indoctrination and intimidation the majority of today’s Cuban students are disaffected and alienated from the communist system."(44) A very different judgment is made by the author of a mid-1980s book on Cuban education, who writes:

I was humbled by the prevailing sense of internationalism and mutual caring exhibited by Cubans. Clearly the revolution has produced and is producing "new people".(45)

Equally conflicting conclusions emerge when intellectual life and artistic and literary freedoms are the special concern. And religion, gender, and race furnish yet other categories and create different disputes regarding the values and practices of the Cuban people.(46) Competing positions on the ends and means of socialisation in Cuba are probably unavoidable. Yet rigorous theorizing about cultural change and systematic information about the beliefs at work in the lives of young and older Cubans are both wanting still. Even keeping the focus on formal schooling, more study of content and organisation is required to draw informed conclusions about the process and outcomes of educating people in and for a socialist society.

The issues of political and social transformation remain alive in Cuba, and Cuban reforms accentuate their importance by asking for change and a commitment to the socialist goals of the revolution. For example, the primary objective announced for higher education in 1998-97 was the pursuit of political and moral values, including anti-imperialism. There is concern with the effects of growing inequalities associated with tourism, the internationalised sectors of the economy, and remittances from families abroad. In this context, the new emphasis on formation of values — citizens — in the schools announced by MINED in summer 1998 recognises honesty, honor, collectivism, industriousness (laborasidad), solidarity, patriotism, and anti-imperialism, while encouraging that "desigualdades irritantes por el uso ostentoso de prenda, alimentos, vestuario, juguetes, etc.," not be expressed in the schools.(47) Cuban studies of their educational system are an important piece in the puzzles of socialisation, one that offers needed insight into the experiences that inform past and current visions of change. Indeed, the project of perfeccionamiento continuo and other reforms can be read as a Cuban response to past progress and new and older problems, including an official critique of past ideological practices that reproaches theoretical work dominated by "dogmatism, formalism, and ‘copyism.’"(48)


Youth is an important category within the problematic of socialisation, one that directs specific attention to the attitudes and activities of a generation that is pivotal in the survival of the revolution in the Special Period and beyond. More than a third of the Cuban population is between 12 and 29 years old; in 1992, 32% of the labor force was 30 or under, the average age of those working in Cuba’s research centers was 29, and 40% of teachers were under the age of 30.(49) An official awareness of youth stamps the reforms begun with Rectification, including ongoing efforts to increase their presence in leadership ranks. In March 1993, for instance, Roberto Robaina became Cuba’s Foreign minister at the age of 37 and 25-year-old Enith Alerm Prieto joined Cuba’s Council of State. While students are a useful measure of the outcomes of formal education, the larger category of youth raises crucial questions about the interests and actions of a generation born with the benefits of a revolution that is now bequeathing them the problems of the Special Period.

What is the response of Cuban youth to the difficulties of the Special Period? Disagreement exists and the activities of youth are cited to support contradictory conclusions about their attitudes toward the revolution and the current process of change. Little systematic study has been done, though it is possible to distinguish different approaches in terms of formal norms and expectations and the behaviors of youth. Noncompliance with official expectations is the preoccupation of many observers. Cuban youth are discussed with reference to dropping out and other problems of performance in the school setting — including cheating, as well as the delinquency and other nonconforming social behaviors defined by law and institutional practices.(50) Problems with student performance and delinquency do exist. In 1994-95, 3.3% of basic secondary students dropped out though in 1996-97 the figure was 1.5% (and 5-6% for preuniversity students).(51) The official Cuban position on delinquency reflects assumptions about personality formation as both biological and socially conditioned, about the causal role of home and family life, and about the need for collective decision-making regarding youth with problems. The emphasis remains reintegration and reeducation, often including productive labor. Reeducation includes special schools for conduct that are one of the several state responses to what is considered "anti-social" behavior and in mid-decade enrollment in these schools amounted to 0.3 % of the population 10-16 years old.(52) Delinquency has in fact increased within the crisis conditions of the Special Period, and preventive efforts are stressed. And in recent years attention has been turned to increasing but still small numbers of children who frequent hotels and tourist sites, are absent from school, or suffer from inadequate family care.(53)

A contrasting view of youth uses official standards and expectations, but allows for conforming behavior. Central to this approach are the ongoing participation of young people and a tradition of mass organisations.(54) What might be called Cuba’s "organised youth" is large in numbers. Membership in the student organisations is nearly universal at each level of education; in 1986, there were 1 700 000 Pioneers and the FEEM and FEU together counted 459 000 members. In 1992, the youth branch of the Party — UJC — had 580,000 members. Like other social and political organisations, national congresses record the history and purposes of each organisation. In 1998, the UJC held its seventh congress; the FEU is organizing for its VI Congreso in 2000; the FEEM held its eighth and ninth congresses in 1991 and 1995 respectively. The Pioneers sent 1 500 delegates to their first Congress in 1991, and held a second in 1996.

In the Special Period, official attention to youth recognises — and relies on — their organised activities, their congresses, and their criticisms. At the 4th Congress of the FEU, the "most debated" topics included cheating, attendance requirements, and job placement for new graduates. The problems raised in the 7th Congress of the FEEM, as another example, were formally associated with the beginning of perfeccionamiento continuo and during the 1990s, polytechnical students have assumed a bigger role in the FEEM, while issues debated more recently include problems of double morality, values, health and sexual activity, and the functioning of agricultural schools. As discussions leading to the First Congress of the Pioneros occurred, the Center for the Study of Youth investigated the views of children, adult leaders, and parents. And when participants in the Manuel Ascunce Domenech Detachment were invited to celebrate its twentieth anniversary in 1992, their criticisms included paternalism towards students and teachers and the need to reinvigorate the schools-to-the-countryside and other features of Cuban education. The complaints and criticisms channeled through organised participation clearly fall within the boundaries of official policy. Yet crucial problems are named with these criticisms, problems that have been proclaimed by other, unauthorised critics inside and outside Cuba. The Cuban state has responded to youth who are organised and those are not. Where the actions of youth push beyond formal norms and expectations, the response has included policies and not simply policing. The repression of nonconforming behavior, in other words, is only one response and it may not be the dominant response in the Special Period. The construction of new recreational facilities responded to the needs of the younger generation, as did mobilisation accompanied by music and dancing, and an official permission to dress, talk, and think differently — carried by the UJC itself (and Robaina, the T-shirt-clad president of the UJC until his promotion to foreign minister). Generational differences are acknowledged in Cuba, and the official position on youth has never ignored what some discover as the signs of an "alienated" younger generation — delinquency, cheating in school, evasion of agricultural labor, and low regard for military service. Social control exists in all societies and it may be as misleading to presume that the Cuban state prefers repression as it is to prejudge the interests that inform what is actually a variety of behaviors and attitudes.

A more systematic focus on youth may help explain the ongoing absence of extensive, organised public protest that has confounded all predictions of the imminent collapse of Cuban socialism. Students and youth do participate in the activities and organisations of Cuba’s dissenters.(55) With the cultural and consumer liabilities fostered by an opening to foreign travelers and foreign capital, the problems of illicit street life and nonconforming behaviors might be more productively explored in terms of youth who are organised and those who are not. Young people have been balseros fleeing to the north and have contributed to the resilience of the black market and the new jineterismo so visible in La Habana.(56) Yet they continue to participate in formal education, in mobilisations, in paid labor, and in the array of official groups and activities that otherwise order Cuban social life; indeed, 75% of youth working in tourism belong to the UJC.(57) Understanding when, how, and why they participate remains important, though answers must consider a multiplicity of factors ranging from clothes to careers to the church to communism. The myriad difficulties of the Special Period fall heavily on a generation that has a decisive role in determining the future of the revolution and socialism.

Centralisation and nonformal education

Centralisation has been a persistent characteristic of Cuban education — and the revolution in general. Centralisation of policy-making and institutions in the revolutionary context may be explained by the goal of creating and maintaining equality, by planning for development, by the exigencies of national defense, or even by Fidel Castro’s personal interest and ongoing role. As integral parts of perfeccionamiento continuo, decentralizing reforms and nonformal education raise important questions about an ongoing socialist centralisation at odds with the global trends of the 1990s. Decentralisation is not an invention of the Special Period in Cuba, however, and economic strategy has required significant shifts in decision making and control. The vital issues of centralisation include power and the organisational and social dynamics of hierarchy.

Perfeccionamiento continuo has explicitly preserved centralised authority while pursuing decentralisation. Uniform curricular objectives, the traditional process of inspection, and the unity of the educational system are still viewed as responsibilities of the center, for instance, as is the regulation of "work discipline" in the educational sector. The strong continuities in centralisation are punctuated, however, by the new concern with regional diversity and differences among schools and students. One example of the awareness of territorial differences is the Turquino Plan underway in Cuba’s mountainous zones. Hoping to slow urban migration by improving mountain life, the educational component had 13 979 teachers, 152 152 students, and 2 409 educational centers in 1997-98.(58) While diversity and differences guide reform efforts, so, too, does local problem solving in the face of resource scarcities. Nevertheless, another trend appears in the centralisation of scientific research, explained in terms of cooperation and a consolidation of available resources and capacities that will permit Cuba to compete internationally.

The changes of perfeccionamiento continuo reflect the organisational design created with the system of Poder Popular in 1976, one that continues to emphasise popular participation and the interrelationship of representation and administration as key in political reforms that pursue better local government and a more democratic socialism.(59) In administering education within a system that stresses community input through formal participation, the activity of those inside the schools is also organised; in addition to the union, management council, and political organisations, school councils provide a means for linking the home and the neighboring community with the schools. Parents and others have thus had access within the centralisation of the formal system, extending from the Movimiento de Madres y Padres Combatientes Por La Educación to the right to petition directly to MINED. While a survey sponsored by the party in 1990 found that 83% rated the effectiveness of the school system as good, examples of parental concerns include longstanding anxiety over the conditions in the schools-to-the-countryside program or the thousands who asked the Provincial Office of education in Ciudad de La Habana about the placement of their children at the start of the 1987-88 school term.(60) The realities of the Special Period and current reforms — including the reduction of university enrollments and stress on agricultural studies as the alternative — suggest that both physical conditions and access will continue to be a concern for parents, as well as for those who make policy at the top. Other issues that chart the domains of conflict in education include the entrance of new consumerist behavior in the schools — be it of teachers or students, as well as recreational needs of youth, care of children during school vacations, and matters of sexual behavior or the use of tobacco and alcohol.(61) Participation, in turn, remains crucial in education — and the state system in general — and there is emphasis on revitalizing the consejos de escuela, the organised participation of parents in support of the school, and community activities that help resolve big and little problems.(62) The extensive scope of formal education and change in the Cuban view of nonformal education provide another perspective on centralisation and the organisational hierarchy it creates.(63) The Cuban position on nonformal education is essential for exploring the shape and the nature of a formal system that has been called an "inverted pyramid." The desire to improve the relationship between home and school is an important part of current efforts, for example. A National Group for Family education was organised in 1988 and strategies for strengthening the ties of home and school included a new program of "Family education." The innovative teaching techniques pursued in formal education extend to family education; at the first national workshop held in 1990, role playing and other participatory techniques were used in a national meeting for the first time. Internationally-assisted efforts in health and early childhood education also demonstrate a new attention to community and popular involvement; nearly all children aged five and under are attended with pre-school education, 70% through nonformal community-based efforts.(64) And at the beginning of the 1990s, Cuba’s report to the International Conference on Public education noted the use of "the research techniques and methods of the so-called popular pedagogy"; according to the director of MINED’s Research Institute, they hadn’t realised how important nonformal or noninstitutional education could be.(65)

Other issues of power surface by focusing on the social dynamics of education, including the possibility that the hierarchy of formal schooling contributes to the formation of a new class whose privilege inheres in knowledge. At the top of the formal hierarchy of education, the importance of university training continues. More than 5% of the population has a university degree, and despite the sharp decline in enrollments, the reorientation toward manual labor has not lessened the value of scientists and other experts engaged in research, or of those with skills required for the current retooling toward international market competition. In 1997-98, 14 750 students were enrolled in the 14 provincial schools for talented students, cited as the world’s most developed system of schooling for the "gifted" and seen by many as emblematic of educational hierarchy and its potential for creating new social divisions.(66) Change has occurred in the IPCVE’s, however; specialisation upon entrance is no longer necessary, while the required hours of productive labor increased in the Special Period. The combination of work with study continues to typify the Cuban perspective on the nature of knowledge, and the ongoing opportunity for adult education, as well as special education, define a system that aims still for inclusion rather than exclusion.

Other changes of the 1990s may also be altering the shape and nature of the formal system at both the bottom and the top. The Federation of Cuban Women, for example, has created numerous Casas de la Mujer throughout the island; the press announced the casa in the municipality of Old Havana in 1992 with a listing of activities that included classes in "green" medicine — herbal remedies that compensate for the scarcity of pharmaceutical imports, modeling, dance, and advice on legal issues. At the top, there has been a recognised "feminisation" of higher education, in terms of women’s enrollments (57% of enrollments, 1990-95 and 61.6% of the University of Havana(67)), presence as university-level teachers, and career choices.(68) Women’s studies now exists in the University of Havana and special faculties that link the study of women with the practical issues of development have emerged in a number of higher pedagogical institutes throughout the island.

The many, interrelated issues of Cuban education signal a need to attend more carefully to the complexities of reforming the organisation and the process of education. Formal schooling reflects the peculiar tensions of education’s conserving functions in any society, as well as its transformative potential within the revolutionary socialist context in Cuba. Describing, analyzing, and interpreting Cuban education in the Special Period all require a refocusing that makes people the proper subject of education. A forecast of Cuba’s future requires better answers to specific and grander questions about education and its place in the past dynamics of Cuban socialism.

Comparative conclusions about Cuban education

Judgments of Cuban education have often answered the big and little questions about the system and its performance in terms of problems. Evaluative criteria may be more important in the 1990s than before, given a global context that is characterised by neoliberalism and remarkably similar economic and political reforms. Where Cuba retains a commitment to socialism in a liberalizing world order, the need to attend closely to Cuban interpretations of progress and problems in their educational system seems clear. Fidel Castro is an acknowledged spokesperson of the Cuban view, yet students, teachers, and parents also demonstrate the meaning of education. Cuba’s past and a changing world order suggest that conclusions about schools and people in a socialist Cuba will need to be carefully framed, empirically grounded, and comparative.

Studies that compare all or parts of the Cuban system do exist and comparison implicitly informs much of the work on Cuban education. Indeed, the use of quantitative measures of educational performance presumes the possibility of universal standards, while viewing progress in terms of time accepts history’s more specific measures. As a Latin American/Third World/ socialist society with previous relations with Spain, the US, and the Soviet Union, the terrain for comparing Cuba includes history, culture, ideology, and the international relationships that have created constraints on Cuba’s choices. Cuba’s enduring commitment to socialism and current reforms underscore the need to compare.

A survey of educational indicators can demonstrate where Cuba stands in a variety of categories. For example, in 1980 and 1990, educational expenditures as a percentage of GNP were higher in Cuba than in the United States, developing countries as a whole, and the Latin American/Caribbean region.(69) The number of teachers per capita is now the highest in the world (1/42) and the teacher/student ratio is admirable for any developed country and much better than those that are developing. Net primary enrollment 1993-1995 was 99% for both girls and boys, compared to 87% in the region; the 94% of primary students reaching grade 5 in Cuba contrasts sharply with the 74% in the region; and gross secondary enrollments in Cuba were 78% for boys and 82% for girls, compared to 47% and 51% in the region, respectively.(70) In other categories, Cuba’s performance is akin to developed countries, including women’s enrollments. These are profound accomplishments.

More striking still are the results of the Latin American Laboratory for the Evaluation of educational Quality, formally announced in December 1998. Organised by UNESCO’s Regional Office of education, 14 countries participated in a comparative study of the achievements of 3rd and 4th grade students in mathematics and language. In addition to the tests applied in 1997 to a representative sample of 4,000 students in 100 schools in each country, the study surveyed parents, students, teachers, and principals in search of background factors to be used in comparative analysis of student achievement.(71) The findings of the Laboratory with regard to student learning configure three groups, with Cuba alone in the first group, far ahead of the other countries in the study; in each of the four tests, Cuban students’ performance was two standard deviations above the regional median. The report published in November 1998 compares the results in terms of PIB per capita, percentage of state spending on education, standing on the Indice del Desarrollo Humano, and adult literacy rates. Though the analysis of factros associated with performance has yet to be published, a report in the Cuban press lists some of the factors where Cuba led: average age of students; percentage of students repeating one or more grades; urban-rural gap; books in children’s homes; educational level of parents; participation of parents in the school; and pre-school education.(72)

Universal measures and comparison require context, of course. The international circumstances of the development of Cuban education are important for interpreting achievements such as those reported in the Laboratory study. This international context includes Cuba’s past relationship with the Soviet Union. More than 6 000 Cubans received higher level training in the Soviet Union through the early 1980s, for example, and in 1989 some 8 000 Cuban were studying in 55 Soviet cities (73). The Soviet provision of resources and personnel is no simple replication of pre-revolutionary dependency, however, nor are Cuban policies, accomplishments and problems reducible to a shared socialist organisation and ideology or the leadership of the Soviet Union. Indeed, some have described Cuban educational traditions as European and argued that developmental necessities explain more than ideology. While approximately 300 Soviet medical specialists worked in Cuba between 1962 and 1981,(74) Cuba had graduated more than 40000 doctors by 1992, exported biomedical inventions in the 1990s, and treated some 15 000 young victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

The international circumstances of Cuban education also include the internationalism that sent more than 22 000 teachers abroad between 1973 and 1985 while inviting thousands of Third World students for free study in Cuba, and the long-term hostility of the United States. The unrelenting US embargo of Cuba has intentionally disrupted the bilateral exchange of information and ideas, as well as goods, and has helped shape the international relations of socialist Cuba. Indeed, its overall costs to Cuba are estimated at some $60 billion, with costs to health care system between 1991-1998 estimated at $1.2 billion.(75) Cuba has received assistance from international and non-governmental organisations in the Special Period, and renewed ties with Latin America are especially important. In 1991, the Grupo de Intercambio Científico Educacional was created in ministry and several hundred Cubans are providing consulting and post-graduate training (in Spanish, mathematics, and natural sciences) in more than 12 countries; emergent hemispheric relations include the travel of thousands of educators to Cuba to participate in the now-biennial Pedagogía conferences that began in the 1980s, the creation of regional organisations with Havana as headquarters, and the recent conversion of a military school into a medical university for scholarship students from the region.

Though the economic crisis that has tempered Cuba’s internationalism and affected the functioning of the Cuban schools is not explained by international factors alone, the successes of Cuban education cannot be interpreted or compared without considering the complexities of the revolution’s place in the changing world order. In this changing order, the post-socialist reform processes underway in Eastern Europe and the countries that were once the Soviet Union provide a distinctive vantage for comparing Cuba. With the rejection of socialist ideology and central planning as the cornerstones of educational policy, post-socialist reforms include privatisation, a turn to competition and tracking, and a welcoming of international assistance. Watching how post-socialist people respond to these and other dimensions of educational reform encourages a closer look at perfeccionamiento continuo as part of Cuba’s commitment to socialism, equality, and the educational system created by the revolution.

More careful attention to the purposes and progress of the reforms of perfeccionamiento continuo can help answer questions about the deeper dynamics of revolutionary socialist development. An understanding of education’s past and present contribution will grant needed insight into the problems and possibilities of the Special Period. Cuba’s education system is still functioning. And the Cuban revolution has, in fact, survived an economic crisis with few parallels elsewhere. A better focus on education and its many issues promises a valuable addition to the scholarly debates about Cuba’s strategies and socialism’s future. Indeed, the further study of education can provide facts, bridge some important gaps in our knowledge about Cuba, and lend support to this essay’s claim that speculation about island’s future properly begins with a more accurate interpretation of the people created within the Cuban revolution.

[back to section index]


1. Fidel Castro, "Discurso...en la clausura de Pedagogía ‘93...," Granma, 9 February 1993, pp. 3-6, esp. p. 5.

2. Dirección de Planificación [DIPLAN], ministerio de Educación. [1998]. "Libreta No. 2: Datos estadísticos de la educación," photocopy, pp. 1, 30; Granma, 29 July, 1998, p. 1; and Granma, 5 November 1998, p. 5.

3. Richard Jolly, "Education," Chapters IV-VII in Cuba: The Economic and Social Revolution, ed. Dudley Seers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964), pp. 169-170 and Rolland G. Paulston, "Changes in Cuban Education," in Educational Innovations in Latin America, ed. Richard L. Cummings and Donald A. Lemke (Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1973), p. 154. See also the historical overview in Sheryl L. Lutjens, The State, Bureaucracy, and the Cuban Schools: Power and Participation (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996).

4. ministerio de Educación, Breve información sobre la educación en cuba [Pedagogía ‘90; Encuentro de Educadores por un Mundo Mejor, 5 al 9 de febrero de 1990] (Havana, 1990), pp. 127, 124, 114, 112.

5. The study was conducted by Ana Lorenzetto and Karyl Neijs, Report on the Method and Means Utilised in Cuba to Eliminate Illiteracy, 2nd ed. (Havana: Instituto del Libro, 1971), pp. 40, 72.

6. Ernesto Che Guevara, "Man and Socialism in Cuba," in Man and Socialism in Cuba: The Great Debate, ed. Bertram Silverman (New York: Atheneum, 1973), p. 343. The society-as-school metaphor is also associated with Fidel Castro.

7. See Nikolai Kolesnikov, Cuba: educación popular y preparación de los cuadros nacionales 1959-1982 (Moscow: Editorial Progreso, 1983).

8. José R. Fernández, "Five Years of Solid Accomplishment, Interview with José R. Fernández, Vice-President of the Council of ministers and minister of Education," Cuba Update 1:6 (January 1981): 2-7, p. 2.

9. For figures, see ministerio de Educación, Informe del ministerio de Educación (Havana: Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular, June 1981), pp. 228, 231, 249, 250, 252, 256.

10. Breve información, pp. 115, 124.

11. Kolesnikov, Cuba, p. 289.

12. Alexis Codina Jiménez, "20 años de la formación de economistas en la Universidad de La Habana," Universidad de La Habana 218 (1982): 182-194 and Rosendo Morales, "La Preparación de los cuadros dirigentes de la economía del país," Cuba Socialista 4 (September-November 1982): 108-133, p. 120.

13. Breve información, p. 114. Guided study (or open courses) also emerged in last half of the 1970s as a third avenue for university study.

14. Compared to 29.2% and 42.8%, respectively, in 1974-75, Mujer y sociedad en cifras 1975-1988 (Havana: Editorial de la Mujer, 1990), p. 53.

15. ministerio de Educación, Pedagogía; trabajo colectivo de especialistas del ministerio de Educación de cuba bajo la dirección del Instituto Central de Ciencias Pedagógicas (Havana: Editorial Pueblo y Educación), 1984.

16. Comisión Económica Para América Latina [CEPAL], La economía cubana: reformas estructurales y desempeño en los noventa (Mexico: CEPAL and Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997), p. 61.

17. Albert Pozo, "¿Por que confian en nosostros?," Bohemia 84:35 (August 28, 1992): 30-33; Cuba Económica 11, no. 4 (April-September 1992): 171-172.

18. Granma, 4 September 1998, p. 2; ministry of Higher Education, Higher Education in Cuba (Havana, 1998), p. 13; Granma, 27 May 1999, p. 4; Granma, 1 January 1998, p. 4.

19. UNESCO, Statistical Yearbook 1992 (Paris: UNESCO, 1992), p. 5/85. More than 87% of scientific teams were concentrated around the Cuban capital, Granma 19 December 1989, p. 2.

20. Granma, 14 May 1999, p. 5.

21. DIPLAN, "Libreta No. 2," p. 36.

22. Granma, 27 May 1999, p. 4.

23. Rita María Avendaño Olivera and Alicia Minujín Zmud, Una Escuela diferente (Havana: Editorial Pueblo y Educación, 1988).

24. Interview with Fernando Vecino Alegret, Trabajadores, 14 September 1998, p. 2.

25. Constitución de la República de Cuba (Havana: Editora Política, 1992), Capítulos IV, V.

26. Mark Richmond’s judgment is that absolute disapproval of Cuban education has "no significant place" in the literature, "Revolution, Reform, and Constant Improvement: 30 Years of Educational Change in Cuba," Compare 20:2 (1990): 101-114). Critics exist, however, though they are more often commentors rather than researchers.

27. Samuel Bowles, "Cuban Education and the Revolutionary Ideology," Harvard Educational Review 41:4 (November 1971): 472-500, esp. 285-286 (not including adult education or on-the-job training); and Unesco, Statistical Yearbook, 1992, p. 4/9.

28. DIPLAN, "Libreta No. 2," pp. 5, 54. On social expenditures in general, see CEPAL, La economía cubana.

29. Granma, 21 May 1999, p. 8.

30. See, for example, the calculation of the value of student labor in Per Eklund, "Appropriate Technology for Learning Aids Production: A Case Study of Cuba," International Review of Education 23:1 (1977): 132-137.

31. Jere R. Behrman, "Investing in Human Resources," Special Section, in Inter-American Development Bank, Economic and Social Progress in Latin America, 1993 Report (Washington, D.C.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 187-240.

32. Granma, 29 August 1991, p. 1.

33. Granma, 28 January 1991, p. 8 and Granma, 24 March 1993, p. 2. Applied research in agriculture and oil exploration were two urgent priorities at the start of the Special Period; in 1992, for example, more than a million hectares were treated with biological means to substitute for formerly imported chemical pesticides.

34. Granma, 1 August 1998, p. 8.

35. Sergio Díaz-Briquets, "Collision Course: Labor Force and Educational Trends in Cuba." Cuban Studies/Estudios Cubanos 23 (1993): 91-112, esp. 102.

36. Juventud Rebelde 3 October 1993, p. 2 and interview with Fernando Vecino Alegret, Trabajadores, 14 September 1998, p. 10. According to a recent article, there were 18,121 youth in the reserve in 1997 and 4,535 in April 1999, 84% of them female, Granma, 1 May 1999, p. 3.

37. Interview with Salvador Valdés Mesa, Granma, 27 August 1998, p. 4. Women account for 42.9% of state sector workers.

38. Interview with Otto Rivero Torres, Trabajadores, 23 November 1998, p. 7 and Juventud Rebelde, 16 May 1999, p. 2.

39. Bowles, "Cuban Education," p. 486.

40. See the chapter on Cuba in Martin Carnoy and Joel Samoff, Education and Social Transition in the Third World (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990).

41. The classics in the literature are provided by Marvin Leiner (day care), Jonathan Kozol (the literacy campaign and its results), and Karen Wald (primary schools).

42. Paulston, "Changes in Cuban Education," p. 168.

43. See the work of Richard R. Fagen, The Transformation of Political Culture in Cuba (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969)

44. Frank De Varona, "Education in a Democratic Cuba," in Cuba’s Transition to Democracy: Lessons from the Former Soviet Bloc (Endowment for Cuban American Studies, Cuban American National Foundation, 1992), p. 184. A similarly egregious claim is made by Mark Falcoff, "the content of Cuban education [is] so ideological as to make much of it almost worthless," in "Reflections on a Dying Revolution," Orbis (Fall 1998): 565-574.

45. Theodore MacDonald, Making a New People: Education in Revolutionary Cuba (Vancouver, British Columbia: New Star Books, 1985), p. 191.

46. Examples of scholarship that might fall under these themes include Carlos Ripoll, Harnessing the Intellectuals: Censoring Writers and Artists in Today’s Cuba (The Cuban American National Foundation, Inc., 1985); Peter T. Johnson, "The Nuanced Lives of the Intelligentsia," in Cuba: Contradiction and Change, ed. Enrique Baloyra and James Morris (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993); Maurice R. Berube, Education and Poverty: Effective Schooling in the United States and Cuba (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984); and Sheryl L. Lutjens, "Women, Education, and the State in Cuba," in Latin American Education: Comparative Perspectives, ed. Carlos Torres and Adrianna Puiggrós (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997).

47. Trabajadores, 12 April 1999, p. 6.

48. Leopoldo Ravelo Fuentes, "Problemas actuales del trabajo ideológico," Cuba Socialista 38 (March-April 1989): 37-58, p. 43.

49. Granma 10 June 1992, p. 2 and Interview, Dr. Lesbia Cánovas, Havana, August 11, 1992.

50. See Rhoda Rabkin’s critical view, "Cuba: The Aging of a Revolution," in Socialist Cuba: Past Interpretations and Future Challenges, ed. Sergio Roca (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988) pp. 47-51; Damián J. Fernández, "The Politics of Youth," in Cuba: Contradiction and Change, ed. E. Baloyra and J. Morris (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

51. Cuba: Organisation of Education 1994-1996; Report of the Republic of Cuba to the 45th International Conference on Public Education (Havana: ministry of Educacion, 1996), p. 18 and DIPLAN, "Libreta No. 2," p. 35.

52. See Guillermo Arias Beatón, et. al, La Atención a menores con trastornos de la conducta en cuba (Mexico: UNICEF, January 1992), in general and p. 78.

53. See Sheryl L. Lutjens, "Schooling and ‘Clean Streets’ in Cuba: Children and the Special Period," in Children on the Streets of the Americas: Globalisation, Homelessness, and Education in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba, ed. Roslyn A. Mickelson (Routledge, forthcoming 1999).

54. For Cuban perspectives, see Jose Luis Martín, "Youth and the Cuban Revolution: Notes on the Road Traversed and its Perspectives," Latin American Perspectives 18:2 (Spring 1991): 95-100 and the distinctions among youth attitudes in María Isabel Domínguez and María Elena Ferrer Buch, Jóvenes cubanos: Expectativa en los 90 (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1996). See also the empirical study of the FEEM in Ciudad de La Habana province, María Isabel Domínguez and Sheryl L. Lutjens, "Secondary Students and the Terrain of Participation," Comparative and International Education Society Meeting, Buffalo New York, March 18-22 , 1998.

55. The Youth Association for Human Rights is mentioned in a report on opposition (noting the arrest of its leader), "Cuba’s Nightmare," Foreign Report 2148 (February 21, 1991): 1-2, and see Fidel Castro’s answer to a question about the arrest of four mathematics students in Gianni Minà, Fidel: presente y futuro de una ideología en crísis analizada por un líder histórico (Mexico: Edivisión Companía Editorial, S.A., 1991), pp. 50-51, 141.

56. In 1998, some 6,000 prostitutes were sent to reeducation centers, "Geraldo Tena, "Prostitución, tema candente en cuba," "," 29 April 1999.

57. Trabajadores, 23 November 1998, p.7.

58. DIPLAN, "Libreta No. 2," p. 20.

59. See the study of the relationship of participation and administration in Lutjens, The State, Bureaucracy, and the Cuban Schools.

60. Jorge I. Domínguez, "La Política cubana antes y después del Cuarto Congreso del Partido Comunista Cubana (octubre 1991): estrategia de liderazgo y apoyo de las masas," Estados Unidos: Informe Trimestral 2:2 (Summer 1992), p. 33, citing Dario L. Machado, "¿Cuál es nuestro clima socio-político?," El Militante Comunista no. 9 (September 1990): 2-12; Mujeres 30:1 (February/March 1991): 2-3 (comments of the then-president of the FEEM about parents who were literacy brigadistas but used excuses to keep their own children from going to the countryside); and Granma, 22 September 1987.

61. See, as one example, the discussion of the presence in schools of the "Tamagotchi," Juventud Rebelde, 22 May 1998, p. 8.

62. See, for example, the report on the association in support of a primary school in Guanacaboa, Tribuna, 27 September 1998, p. 3 or the community activities reported in Se hace camino al andar; experiencias relevantes de los Talleres de Transformación Integral de Barrio (Havana: Grupo Para El Desarrollo Integral de la Ciudad, 1997).

63. See the recent treatment by Carlos Alberto Torres, "The State, Nonformal Education, and Socialism in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada," Comparative Education Review 35:1 (February 1991): 110-130.

64. La educación en cuba [Encuentro Por La Unidad de Los Educadores Latinoamericanos, 1 al 5 de febrero de 1999] (Havana: ministerio de Educación, 1999], p. 23.

65. Organisation of Education, 1989-1992, p. 20, and interview, Dr. Lesbia Cánovas, Havana, August 11, 1992. An interview with Paulo Freire was published in Casa de las Américas in 1987, marking his first visit to Cuba.

66. Eileen F. Donoghue and Bruce R. Vogeli, "Cuba’s Schools for the Mathematically and Scientifically Talented," Gifted Child Today (May/June 1998): 32-35. See also María Isabel Domínguez, "Aceso a la educación en cuba, reproducción social y cuestiones de género," paper presented at the V Seminario Científico Sobre la Calidad de la Educación: Intercambio de Profesionales Cubanos y Norteamericanos, Cienfuegos, Cuba, February 1999.

67. Domínguez, "Aceso a la educación," p. 14.

"68. Feminización de la universidad," Alma Mater (April-June 1997): pp. 16-17, esp. 16.

69. Unesco, Statistical Handbook, p. 4/9.

70. The State of the World’s Children 1999: Education (UNICEF, 1999), pp. 106, 109.

71. UNESCO, Primer estudio internacional comparativo sobre lenguaje, matemática y factores asociados en tercero y cuarto grado (Santiago, Chile: Oficina Regional de Educación Para América Latina y El Caribe, 1998).

72. Granma, 6 February 1999, p. 8.

73. Kolesnikov, Cuba, pp. 227, 211; "Servir la revolución (entrevista con Fernando Vecino Alegret, Ministro de Educación Superior...)," América Latina, no. 1 (1989): 15-20.

74. Kolesnikov, Cuba, p. 221.

75. Interview with Carlos Lage, Juventud Rebelde, 9 May 1998, p. 4.