CUBA: BOOKS AND UNIFORMS

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“There is not a single Cuban child who does not attend school,” told me Gabriel Calaforra, former Cuban diplomat and linguist. “Even for those who live in remote areas, there is a mobile teacher.”

During my recent stay in Cuba, I quickly realized that education is one of the few things that Cubans are proud of. They value knowledge and have a high interest in learning foreign languages. Many of the Cubans I met spoke an average of three languages.

Education in Cuba is mandatory and free. It has been a highly ranked system for many years with a literacy rate of 99.8 percent. After the 1959 revolution, the Castro government nationalized all educational institutions, and created a system operated entirely by the government. As a consequence, the Marxist ideology is overly present in the teaching materials.

According to UNESCO, Cuba spends 10 percent of its central budget on education, compared with just 2 percent in the United States.

School meals and uniforms are free. Teachers have the obligation to go visit the family of a pupil who does not show up at school to understand why they are missing. Many schools stays open for more than 12 hours a day in order to provide free morning and after-school care for working parents with no extended family.

Youth are aware of the importance to be educated to ensure a successful future. Yet, the Cubans I met pointed at the fact that having a high education is not synonym of a successful and well-paid career. For instance, my guide,Yiner, who is a nurse in a psychiatric hospital earns 32 CUC ($32) for 190 working hours per month. Ten years ago, when he started his career, he used to earn 15 CUC ($15) per month.

Last year, the government gave hundreds of thousands of medical workers raises that in some cases exceeded 100 percent. Yet, pay remains much lower than what medical professionals earn elsewhere. For example, doctors with two specialties now earn on average $67 a month against $26 before the raise.

In general, salaries at government jobs in Cuba average about $20 a month, augmented by a range of free services and subsidies.

Now, with a government allocating 10 percent of its budget on education, the conditions of primary and secondary schools could be improved. I have seen classrooms in old decrepit buildings and children having their physical education class on the sidewalk, right next to containers of garbage.