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.