How Education Shaped Communist Cuba

And why it’s key to restoring the country's relationship with the U.S.

An American flag beach towel hangs on a clothesline in Havana, Cuba. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

F is for Fidel, Y is for Yanqui. This mantra used for teaching the alphabet in revolutionary Cuba shows just how far its educational divide with the U.S. has stretched. No sector illustrates better how Cuba and the U.S. have grown apart in over 50 years than education. Cuba claims today that its academic standards are among the highest in the world, and the country has educated tens of thousands of foreign students, mostly in medicine. U.S. policymakers know little about the methods used in Cuban education, nor what practical opportunities for collaboration in research and business might exist. With the agreement the two countries made last December to restore diplomatic relations, that may be about to change.

The U.S. and Cuba built strong links in education over the span of more than 50 years after the island’s independence from Spain in 1902. The first American football game played by the University of Miami in 1926 was against the University of Havana. Ruston Academy, founded in Havana by Americans in 1920, became a model international school among the U.S. expat community and prominent Cuban families. Fidel and Raul Castro for their parts both attended elite Catholic schools, first in Santiago then at Havana’s Colegio de Belén. Raul Castro’s wife, Vilma Espin—whose father was a senior official with Bacardi—attended MIT in the 1950s. In 1959 the number of Americans expats in Cuba was not enormous, probably under 50,000; only 6,500 Americans were formally registered as residents of Cuba but many more came back and forth. Still, Cuban and U.S. culture—jazz, baseball, Coca-Cola, Chevrolets—were in regular interaction.

Cuban education had been a major subject of political debate in Cuba before the revolution. The 1940 constitution enacted under Fulgencio Batista included a requirement that the Ministry of Education should take the largest share of the government’s budget, except in cases of emergency. And the same constitution provided for compulsory primary education between the ages of 6 through 14. Yet in 1953, the year of the last full census that was taken before the Revolution, only 44 percent of children in these age groups were in school. The absentee figures were much higher in the rural areas. Cuba was not, of course, exceptional for these times. In the 1950s, though Cuba had an overall illiteracy rate of 23 percent (with 53 percent in rural areas), this was good for Latin America. Cuba’s secondary-school attendance was relatively high as well. In 1953, 12 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 19 were in school, a very high figure for the region. And 20,000 Cubans were enrolled in universities. But standards varied, and affluent parents often chose to pay to send their kids to private schools; these school inequalities mirrored those across Cuba during that time.

So the scene was set for Fidel Castro to select education as a major issue for his revolution. He had mentioned plans to raise teachers’ salaries and improve rural schools briefly in the manifesto of his revolution, but once in power it was clear that he saw education as having a pivotal role in consolidating his revolution. Under Fidel Castro, education became universal—but he also stipulated that anyone who received this education would have to actively promote government policies both during and after their schooling. They would also be required to take government-approved courses that didn’t tolerate any criticism of socialism as a way of life. In other words, education was seen as key to the revolution taking hold and creating a literate population loyal to the government.

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The Cuban government’s illiteracy campaign was an early example of mobilization—the revolution hitting the ground running. Many of the enlisted teachers were themselves high-school students. By 1961, when the literacy campaign was at its height, Fidel Castro began closing all private schools, many of which were run by the Catholic Church. This followed the breaking of diplomatic relations with the U.S. and the seizure of American commercial and residential property. The battleground with the U.S. therefore had an early educational focus. And it provoked the first wave of Cuban exiles, those who did not like the direction the revolution was taking. The so-called "Pedro Pan" flights brought to America school-age children whose parents preferred exile in the U.S. to indoctrination. Many educators from the old regime followed, prompting a teacher shortage on the island. The Colegio de Belén, which the Castros had attended, was reestablished in Miami.

Increasingly, Cuban education was geared around the needs of the state. As Cuba became officially socialist, children followed the Marxist maxim of combining work and study. The government assigned them tasks like working in agriculture or tending the gardens of the school. And adolescents were sent to boarding school for a period to make sure their loyalty to the revolution was secure. Engineering and technical education took priority over the arts. Rebellious youth who mimicked the long hair and western ethos of the Woodstock-Beatles era were punished; the revolution would determine what was appropriate appearance and behavior. Elite schools like the Centro Vocacional de Lenin, on the outskirts of Havana, catered to the children of the top party cadres and military.

The resources Fidel received from the Soviet Union funded a massive increase in new institutions. At the end of the 1960s there were over 30,000 students at technical schools and 40,000 at universities, compared to 6,000 and 2,0000, respectively, in 1958. The government opened many new schools in the remote rural regions of Cuba. Fidel, however, was never a believer in education for its own sake. His vision for education was that the revolution would be built doing practical work—not in university classrooms. In 1966 he chided university students for having less "revolutionary consciousness" than agronomists. Then, in 1968, he forecast that all Cuban universities could be abolished since only a few activities would require higher studies. In the future "practically every factory, every agricultural zone, every hospital, every school will be a university," he said. The individual competition for grades or achievement was played down in favor of nurturing the ethos of the colectivo.

The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Cuba’s resources were no longer unlimited. While he student population continued to grow until 2008, the number of jobs available that matched their qualifications declined. All university entrants had to be approved by the government, and political and military connections facilitated admission for courses that promised better-paying jobs, such as those in IT, tourism, and medicine. Universities continued to be free, but the percentage of total budget devoted to education—which at 34 percent was one of the world’s highest—was not sustainable.

In 1989, university professors, along with doctors, were at the top of the salary scale. But after that their relative pay declined in comparison to others, such as small private farmers and the "self-employed" in black markets. Many qualified professionals, including teachers, moved to these sectors—sometimes into private tutoring. The university dropout rate rose to more than 30 percent and students increasingly looked elsewhere to earn money, and absenteeism among both students and teachers became common.

Despite its economic difficulties, Cuba’s international education outreach has continued. But the Cuban government increasingly charges foreign governments for their students attending institutions such as the Latin American Medical School. Since 1999 the country has educated more than 20,000 medical students—making this education sector a particularly important revenue source.

Last December's agreement didn’t change Cuba’s education system: The government is unlikely to forgo its monopoly on education materials, curriculum—and informal opinion polls suggest that Cubans support the free public-education system developed under the revolution. The country’s priority for the sector is securing hard currency to keep schools open and maintaining a teacher quorum; 60 percent of its teachers are women, and they are undergoing the brunt of the downsizing initiated under Raul Castro. Large numbers of community colleges and rural prep schools have been closed. University enrollment dropped by 36 percent between 2008 and 2011, perhaps in part because of higher admission standards. And private education is now again making small, unofficial inroads in Cuba; many parents, for example, employ private tutors to give their children an edge.

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Cuba’s primary motive in agreeing to its rapprochement with the U.S. was economic—not political. Yet Raul Castro knows that Cuba’s economy won’t experience a decisive and sustained boost if it sits back and thinks it’s business as usual in education; he knows that education reform is needed to compliment that transformation. Education reform in post-Communist countries such as Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic worked not because there was a change in the government—but because of a complete transformation of the prevailing political system.

Although he’s rejected political reform, Raul Castro has called for new ideas—he advocates for a new sense of self-reliance among individual Cubans and an end to the inverted pyramid of salary payment, among other goals. All of these objectives, of course, have implications for education. Again, of the institutions central to the revolutionary government, education has been the most crucial because it represented the process of ideological transfer; the strategy is key for the Cuban state’s claim to its citizenry. After all, the Cuban government has long considered ideas weapons in the class struggle against capitalism and Western-style democracy. Its leaders also stress the function of education as a way to foster social equality. But this reliance on education as a tool for indoctrination can no longer be taken for granted: Many Cubans, especially those born after the fall of the Soviet Union (who now account for nearly 20 percent of the island’s 11 million population) no longer believe in the Marxist ideology.

As the transitions of Europe’s post-communist states have shown, it is not easy to demolish years of totalitarian control without addressing the issue of reconstruction—particularly psychological reconstruction. Citizens of post-communist nations have understood that a new curriculum for their schools is as important as a revised constitution for their governments. They recognize that schools must teach young citizens the meaning of democracy if they are to develop and sustain a free society and government. Cuba for its part demonstrates how a political system can exercise effective government social control over ideology and political culture; it shows how a government can reduce sophistication by emphasizing the importance of the collective wellbeing of the state—not the individual. The system has broken down the ability of individuals to claim ownership of central historical experiences, beliefs, values, and myths that a new education system will have to restore. However, any educational transition will take time to move from what is accepted as certain to something that is, initially, uncertain.

Any "new" education system will need to break down these beliefs and create new ones while minimizing the psychological trauma involved. The implementation of a new worldview should be slow and flexible. Otherwise, Cuba will replicate what has occurred in some post-Communist states, where new systems are confusing for citizens who are nostalgic for the "old ways"—not because they were better but because they knew how to behave within the structure of social control.

U.S. educators know that democratic principles cannot be imported or exported from one country to another. However, the "new" Cuba policies enacted by the Obama administration lift key restrictions that will enable more people-to-people contact, and this interaction can be very constructive in developing in Cuban minds the reality of "change." But even though the U.S. also has "free" public schools and subsidized state universities, American educators and companies will need to recognize that their education system is currently a world apart from that in Cuba.

Ultimately, if Cuba’s economic reforms are to function, its population will need retraining at all levels, in part to nurture a new civil society. Concepts like civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic virtues demonstrate there are much more than 90 miles of separation between the American and Cuban concepts of such education. The separation comes down to conformity versus individuality; stability versus instability; and censorship versus freedom of expression. Moreover, little common ground exists on issues like the rule of law, how a government represents individuals, and what political participation really means. To quote one of Fidel Castro’s favorite phrases, there will need to be a "battle of ideas."

A central feature of civic education for a constitutional democracy is the development of intellectual and participatory skills—an important common good. Intellectual skills empower citizens to identify, describe, and explain information and ideas pertinent to public issues and defend their points of view. The development of civic skills requires active learning by students both inside and outside the classroom. The individual is being educated for his or her own benefit to function better in society—not just to become another asset for that society. Virtues such as self-discipline, compassion, tolerance, and mutual respect for all regardless of political opinions are indispensable to the proper functioning of any civil society. It’s up to social agencies, including schools, to encourage a government that’s responsive and accountable to its citizens.

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Many Cubans are already receiving informal education through their interactions—visits, funding, conversations—with Cuban Americans, in large part thanks to Obama’s 2009 policy changes. And these families are poised to invest in businesses and institutions that serve the education sector. The recent agreement facilitated visits from U.S. passport holders who fall under one of the 12 categories needed to travel to Cuba with what’s known as a "general license," several of which cover educational purposes. These travelers will even be permitted to use U.S. credit and debit cards; moreover, U.S.-based nonprofits and universities will be able to open bank accounts on the island.

The opportunities for accessing new resources in the U.S. are undeniably attractive. Cuba badly needs hard currency, and its economic reforms have been slow and largely timid. The island’s poor Internet infrastructure and low access is also a major hindrance. Its political allies—including Venezuela, Iran, and Russia—face economic downturns; even China is unlikely to bankroll big infrastructure projects. Education will increasingly compete with other sectors for resources. Beyond this, the country’s businesses and foreign investors will increasingly compete for the best Cuban students, many of whom will be highly motivated after decades of earning very meager wages. They are also disciplined, and many speak excellent English. Meanwhile, government-employed teachers will now be able to provide consulting advice to businesses—including foreign investors.

A fully open relationship between U.S. and Cuba—which, of course, is far from what the December agreement brought— would have many implications for education. But the first consequences will be a new transparency. As educational institutions from both countries interact, there will be a huge increase in mutual knowledge—unimpeded by government filters.

Though the December development is symbolically important, it’s also led to real academic changes in both directions. And there are many ways to build on these changes, from the expansion of academic exchange options to training opportunities at American universities for K-12 Cuban teachers. The U.S. could even offer funding and upgraded technology to facilitate distance learning at Cuban institutions. (IT equipment can be supplied to Cuba under the new agreement.)

The next round of U.S.-Cuba talks begin this Friday. The U.S. needs to be proactive in pushing agenda items for cooperation with Cuba, which can reconstruct a mutually beneficial relationship. Education is one area where cooperation could, with determination on both sides, take root at an early stage.

Fifty years of estrangement means an acuerdo on education will not be easy; obstacles range from the physical reconstruction of schools to ideological and psychological reorientation. But establishing some common ground is possible. No longer will it make sense for a Cuban leader to repeat Fidel Castro’s words: "The universities are only available to those who share my revolutionary beliefs." And the diversity within America’s educational institutions will show the Cubans that no single approach produces all the answers. In the new era of U.S.-Cuba relations—if it genuinely proves to be such—there are few more promising areas for U.S.-Cuba cooperation than education.