Cuba’s Educational System: Paul

UH_steps UH_tank UH_Castro

Upon first arriving at the University of Havana I was taken aback by the overall majesty of the school itself; the grand steps leading up to the bronze sculpture of the “alma mater”, the Grecian style columns of the buildings invoking thoughts of the Acropolis and educational centers of early civilization; the owl at the peak of a building symbolizing wisdom. The care and thought that went into these details of the buildings themselves show just how valued education is in Cuban society.

The value of education is not only evident in brick and mortar of the school but also I how the educational system functions. Listening to the guide describe the process education in Cuba, there were several key aspects of the system that stood out.

First, how a students education is financed specifically how the government covers tuition, books, and living expenses for the entirety of a student’s university education. A university educational system funded entirely by the government is far more than a “novel” idea; it is a fantastic idea. The greatest burden facing most students in my generation in the United States is the debilitating cost of higher education. Student’s graduate with a bachelor’s degree, they try and find a job and then begin the arduous process of repaying their student loans. Some secure employment that will allow them to pay off those loans in relatively short order; others, I would say most are unable to pay their loans back for decades and potentially never. Federal student loans are also non forgivable in bankruptcy. I cannot imagine the amount of relief I would feel if I knew that I didn’t have any student loans. This system also hurts the financial health of the government as a whole.

Students take government loans to pay for college, then they can’t pay back the student loans in a timely matter and the government is not repaid in a timely matter and the student’s financial welfare is in serious jeopardy. No one wins. Would it not be easier to have a system paid for by the government? This leads to the second point that stood out to me.

I realize a major problem with a government funded educational system is that depending on the amount of students going to college the government may go bankrupt. A way to resolve this dilemma and I think this is how Cuba does so is to limit the amount of people going to university. Listening to our guide, I got the impression that it is extremely difficult to score high enough on the entrance exams to go to a university, especially the University of Havana. It seemed to me a form of a merit-based system; those who score the highest on the exams go to the best universities and so on down the line. In controlling the amount of students going to college, the government has the ability to regulate the cost of education per student. Yet, in the U.S we are told from a young age that you have to go to college to succeed in life so everyone tries to get a college education as well they should but there is also a downside to this notion.

The U.S. is in desperate need of skilled vocational labor, which traditional universities do not train. Though not everyone goes to a major university in Cuba, those that don’t have the possibility to receive vocational training. This helps to insure a skilled labor base that helps balance out the jobs those going to a university are studying for. Also, it was interesting to learn that each student who attends a university has a job waiting for him or her after they graduate. This idea of guaranteed employment is unfortunately a laughable concept in the U.S.
The last thing that really stuck out to me regarding the educational system was the emphasis place on math and science. Placing the study of math and science above many other subjects I think has helped Cuba develop a healthcare system that in some respects surpasses our own along with a biotech industry that may very well be the best in the world along with agricultural development that others around the world are trying to adopt. I think this because if history has told us anything, the two most important study areas of every society is math and science. Math must be understood to be successful in the sciences. The sciences must be understood for a society to not only survive, but also adapt and succeed as the world changes.

Overall, I was extremely impressed at how the educational system in Cuba functions. Yet, the most inspiring aspect of their system is the value in which education is given and how important it is to the Cuban people. I got the sense that a university education is not a right but a privilege. A privilege that is respected by those who have it and are willing to strive to do the best they can with that privilege.

The Animals of Cuba: Chelsea

acat ahorse apeacock

Walk down the streets of Trinidad and encounter a world that most people in First World Countries will never believe. The beautiful cobbled streets lead to different squares where music follows around every bend. And as you turn the corner of the street, you have to avoid the horse drawing a carriage of tables and chairs. What!? Yes. In the streets of Trinidad, the 1800s can still be found. An old man rides a donkey down the street. A horse drew a carriage with furniture to its unknown destination. In a world of fast technology and being on the go, animals still have an original purpose.

In Cuba, animals are still used as pack animals, as a form of transportation rather than for mere companionship and enjoyment. They have jobs, which Cubans in rural and small city Cuba still rely on today. Driving down the narrow roads from one town to the next, you pass shacks in the middle of fields with nothing else in sight for miles. There are no cars in the driveway but there are horses munching on dry grass one field over. The bus has to swerve and looking out the window, you will see a man with a cell phone, riding his horse to a destination. Time is slower in Cuba because no matter how much you push, those horses wont go as fast as a car. The passing of loud vehicles does not phase the animals. They just keep moving down the street at the same pace. The horses and donkeys appear to grow smaller on the island. The US has bred such large horses that seeing a small horse pulling a giant cart was a startling. But upon reflecting, all of the animals in Cuba are generally smaller in Cuba. This could be from any number of things. Including a lack of hormones and artificially enriched foods.

Birds are enjoyed for their beauty and their companionship. As a sign of wealth, someone might have a more tropical bird in a wrought iron cage. For an ordinary citizen of Cuba, dainty little black birds are carried in wood cages. They hang from the entry of shops, are carried, or rest in stands in gardens. Their happy chirps and songs fill the air along with local musicians.

And then there are the cats and dogs. The only distinction between an animal that has a home and one that does not is a tag around its neck. They all wonder the streets together and as a community, Cubans feed them. In a world very different from the US, animal care is not a pressing concern. Once or twice a month, clinics are opened to animals that need to be treated, mostly those owned. The rest of that month, those clinics see people. To date, there are no shelters like what exist in the United States. And for all that some of these animals are in sad shape, overall, Cubans are kind to the strays, feed them and pet them as they walk by on the street. The cats wonder in restaurants and patrons drop meat for them to eat. Surprisingly there does not appear to be an overpopulation problem despite the lack of veterinary care and surgeries to spay and neuter.

Cuban History and the Revolution: William

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Billboard outside Havana International Airport promoting the ongoing revolution

MinistryBldg_Camilo

Ministry of Communications Building: quote from Camilo Cienfuegos “Vas bien, Fidel” i.e. “You’re doing fine, Fidel”

MinistryBldg_Che

Ministry of the Interior Building: quote from Ernesto “Che” Guevara “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” i.e. “Always Toward Victory”

YoungCommunistLeague

Billboard of the Young Communist League featuring Julio Antonio Mella, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos

Cuban History through Batista:

Cuba has had a significant history of revolution even before 1953. Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 and the country was under Spanish domination until 1898 and the end of the Spanish-American War.

First War of Independence aka Ten Years War (1868 – 1878): resulted in continued Spanish domination

Little War (1879 – 1880)

Second War of Independence (1895 – 1898): The last three months are known in the U.S. as the Spanish-American War and included the death of José Martí and the destruction of the Battleship Maine, but resulted in the expulsion of Spain and at least nominal independence for Cuba.

Cuban Revolution:

Revolutions don’t occur in a vacuum. I used to wonder exactly how revolutions occurred; whether communist, populist, nationalistic, or other political ideology. Especially considering that once they have finished, so many people risk so much to escape them. What were the people fighting against and what were they fighting for?

Fulgencio Batista was a former army sergeant who came to power as army chief of staff in 1933 as the result of a military coup. He was elected president in 1940 and stepped down in 1944. The following administration was inept and corrupt which precipitated Batista’s own coup that installed him as president at which time he suspended the scheduled elections. Those elections included Fidel Castro as a candidate. It seems that Castro believed (perhaps correctly) there was no other way to effect change in the Cuban government than by revolution.

Continuing the Revolution:

How do you continue the passion of revolution when the revolution has become the establishment?

The Revolution seems to have changed with the times via a series of “updates” as the reforms are euphemistically known. Raúl Castro came to power in 2008 and identified the economy as Cuba’s single largest problem. He seems to have brought a sense of military or business-like practicality to the government. I was encouraged to see the variety of such updates that have been introduced:

  1. Laying-off 500 thousand government workers to be replaced with private business licenses recognizing nearly 200 newly recognized professions – a goal is to have 35% of the population employed in the private sector.
    1. For example: paladars which are relatively small restaurants operated out of homes have recently been allowed new leeway in operating which has resulted in more numbers, greater size, and higher quality
  2. Allowing private transfers of home ownership
  3. Allowing foreign travel by citizens
  4. Allowing Cubans to purchase cell phones and other previously restricted electronics
  5. Allowing Cubans to enjoy previously off-limits tourist hotels

I was impressed with the entrepreneurial energy that is alive in Cuba. We visited a paladar which is a small restaurant usually located in a home. These are typical in the Caribbean, although they are not always operated legally. They were first legalized in 1995, although with significant restrictions. In 2011, those restrictions were eased and these businesses began to flourish. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the old house and this was some of the best food of the trip.

While there was a fair amount of political propaganda to be seen, especially in Havana, I was surprised how little of it was venerating Fidel Castro. Che Guevara, other revolutionaries, the “Cuban Five” prisoners held in the U.S., José Martí, and socialism in general were all more popular subjects.

Cuba’s Economy: Elisha

Cigars Kitchen Bar CarsIn the 1990s, Cuba’s economy went through a structural change. Instead of primary goods, Cuba now focuses on services such as tourism and healthcare. We learned on our first day in Cuba that the country was a late-comer to the tourism market, but they seem to have caught up quickly. Everywhere we went, including quick shops on the side of the road, we saw dozens of souvenir t-shirts, hats, keychains, and the like, as well as craft items. However, the items did not vary from place to place. It was the same for things like soda and bottled water, as well. I only saw one or two brands of water. I often wondered whether privatization of businesses will eventually lead to more brand choice.
In 2008, President Raul Castro announced that Cuba’s problem is its economy. The economy is growing, but not enough. Among the reasons include a lack of investment, technology, and employee incentives. I anticipate reading the actual language of the new foreign investment law. Cuba’s people are so hopeful and I think they will be able to grow at a faster rate and eventually meet their full potential with help from investors. Since 2011, Cuba has attempted to downsize its government with the idea that small business is good. Now, small businesses are popping up everywhere in Cuba. One of my favorite parts of the trip was visiting Bella Habana and hearing the owner’s story of how he opened his own restaurant. Perhaps with new privately owned businesses, the economy will grow more in the near future. I also look forward to seeing whether foreign investment will affect the tax rate for Cuban businesses.
Due to the scarcity of supplies and products necessary for starting businesses, many entrepreneurs bring items back from Miami. I noticed numerous people having items like blenders, televisions, and other appliances and electronics wrapped in plastic at the airport in Miami on our way to Havana. Cuban-Americans in Miami, as well as other U.S. cities, are a great influence on American policy and the Cuban people have hope that with enough of that influence, the U.S. will lift the economic embargo, which would be tremendous for Cuba. The embargo puts quite a damper on Cuba’s economy because it puts pressure on other countries to refrain from doing business with Cuba.

Women in Cuba: Corrigan

women1 women2 women3 women4

It can be said that in Cuba there is one rule: Women Rule. The role of women in Cuban society as compared to the United States shows that women in Cuba hold significantly more power than their neighbors 90 miles to the north. From the moment we touched down at Jose Martin International Airport, it was apparent that gender distinctions in employment are more limited in Cuba than the United States. For example, luggage carriers, a traditionally male job in the United States, is a position held by many women. Women holding traditional male roles did not just extend to blue-collar jobs, many professional positions are held by women. While in Cuba we had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Quintana, the president of Cuba’s Bar Association, who was a woman. When I talked to her about gender-based discrimination, she gave me a puzzled look and then laughed at my inquiry. Her response made me think about how I personally have viewed the limitations of women. As a young girl, I was always told that as a woman I would face gender-based discrimination in the workplace, thus I am always aware of it. These limitation, however, are created entirely out of fiction and it seems as thought the Cuban culture has evolved to the point of looking past the distinctions between men and women and has focused on individual ability based on the fact that we are all human.

One of the most power political groups in Cuba is the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas of the Federation of Cuban Women. (“FCM”) This group is 3 million strong and warrants respect from high-ranking State officials. The FMC is so powerful, their annual meetings attract such high ranking officials like the President of Cuba, Raul Castro. The power of women is also extended to the University setting. Our group had the opportunity to visit the University of Havana during our trip. During our excursion to the University, there are more female students than men. This fact demonstrates that the current trend of women having significant power will not be changing anytime soon as women continue to educate themselves to hold influential positions.

The form of a woman has special significance in much of the artwork in Cuba. While in an open market located in Havana there were many images depicting semi-erotic poses of women. Even though these would make most Americans uncomfortable, because women are so highly respected in Cuba, it is completely normal. The celebration of the female anatomy even extends to the state uniforms of women. These outfits would never be acceptable within the American Professional world, but since the Cuban culture is so respectful and appreciative of women, it has been completely normal to incorporate these values into state uniforms.

Finally, the most captivating characteristic that Cuban women have is the confidence they exude. Everywhere we went all of the women seemed so confident and proud – always walking with a swagger absent in the United States. I could not help but feel a little bit of jealousy because in the United States, such confidence is rare and usually only found in celebrities or larger than life personalities. In reflection, I believe that the Cuban culture has done a much better job at balancing the acceptance of actual gender differences while valuing individual contribution without regard to gender. Thus, women in Cuba enjoy living in a culture that celebrates those gender differences as well as having the opportunity to succeed based on their own individual ability.
My experience in Cuba and my opportunity to observe the women of the Cuban culture has made me question the gender norms in the United States. One thought that has continually crossed my mind is how the women in Cuba gain such confidence. In answering this question, I have continually returned to the thought that little girls growing up in Cuba are not influenced by the media to compare themselves to other women, nor are they bombarded with images of “what they are supposed to be.” Women in Cuba are accepted for who they are as both a woman and the individual contributions they provide to society. I hope that one day, culture of the United States will change to no longer see fictional gender distinctions and move towards instilling confidence and pride in our little girls.

Cuba’s Historical Figures: Matt

Marti Batista revolutionaries

José Martí (photo 1)

Martí was born in Havana January 28, 1953. He was a political philosopher as well as a gifted writer. His essays on Cuban independence were a key turning point in Cuban history. Because of these writings, he became a key figure in the Cuban revolution and many believed that he would have been the first president had he not died in military action on May 19, 1895. When we were in Havana, we visited the José Martí Center, which is located in his old home. The home was repurposed to be a center of learning where people can come to study and earn certificates in many various fields. They accept a fair number of foreign students and give them room and board. The Cubans believe, and I agree, that this is a perfect way to honor their national hero because of the high regard that Martí had for education. Now his name can be associated with the search for knowledge as well as the revolution. Martí is to the Cubans as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to Americans. He has been referred to as the “Apostle of Cuban independence” and is held in extremely high regards, even today.

Fulgencio Batista (photo 2)

Born in Banes, Cuba on January 16, 1901 and died August 6, 1973 at age 72 in Guadalmina, Spain. Batista was a Sergeant in the military and rose to power by revolt. In 1933 he overthrew the rule of Gerardo Machado and appointed himself chief of the armed forces with the rank of colonel. In 1940 he was elected president and served until 1944. Afterwards he lived in the United States but then returned in 1952 where he ran a losing campaign for the presidency and then staged a military coup and took the Presidency. Batista’s second run as president was marred with corruption and exploitation. He had lucrative relationships with the American mafia, censored the media, and secret police to carry out wide-scale violence, torture, and public executions. Up until 1959, the Batista government received financial, military, and logistical support from the United States. On New Year’s Day, 1959, Batista fled Cuba with a huge personal fortune amassed from governmental embezzlement. This support from the US had a negative impact on the Cuba general public’s view of US-Cuban relations and further made it difficult for the US to have good relations with the victorious revolutionaries. The tension of the Batista backings, coupled with the CIA operations to invade and overthrow Fidel, spiraled the two countries towards a negative outcome. It is believed that these events were instrumental in the US putting the embargo in place.

The Revolutionaries (Photo 3)

Fidel Castro was born August 13, 1926 on father’s farm in the Cuban countryside. Raul Castro was born on June 3, 1931. And Che Guevara was born June 14, 1928 in Rosario, Argentina. He was executed October 9, 1967 in Bolivia.
These three men were pivotal to overthrowing Batista. They formed the 26th of July Movement and attacked Batista’s forces using extremely successful gorilla tactics beginning in 1956. On January 1, 1959, they overthrew the Batista regime and began to rebuild the government themselves.
Fidel was essentially in power from 1959 until he stepped down and handed the reins to Raul in 2008. Raul was his brother’s right hand man until he himself was given the position of president. Che stuck around to help build the Cuban government but after a few year, he left to continue his dream of unifying South America from United States and European influence and control.
The revolutionaries are held in incredibly high esteem. Fidel is not much talked about these days, and Raul is praised for the positive changes his administration has been making but Che. Che is praised as all that a Cuban should be. In elementary school, children are taught to “be like Che.” That is, to be selfless and put the good of the country and its citizens before personal attainment. Che has been immortalized in artwork all over the country. His image can be seen on buildings, such as the tower in revolutionary square, or t-shirts, and his famous beret has been reproduced and is a tourist shop favorite to sell from Havana to Trinidad and beyond. Che is revered for his humble attitude and simplistic lifestyle. The people believe that while the Castros had nice furnishings and the like, Che led by example, calling for the people to be happy with simplistic ways of life and living; at the same time, keeping his personal space very Spartan. It was the gestures such as this, ensure that Che, as well as the revolution, will not be forgotten by the Cuban people.

Sources:

Jose: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MartiJohnManuel_K_TRestauration.jpg; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/José_Mart%C3%AD

Batista: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fulgencio_Batista,_president_of_Cuba,_1952.jpg; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fulgencio_Batista

Revolutionaries: http://briefandtothepoint.blogspot.com/2008/02/fidel-castro-retires-resigns-timeline.html; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidel_Castro#Rebellion_and_Marxism:_1947.E2.80.931950;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raúl_Castro; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_Guevara

I used Wiki for pictures and to reconfirm dates. I used one other website for the revolutionaries picture.

Small Business in Cuba: Patrick

BizOwner CubaRestaurant belleHabana

Up until 2011, owning a small business in Cuba was against the law. However, this changed when 300-plus laws were passed, creating sweeping reform to benefit the Cuban economy. Some of these laws legalized private business ownership for the first time in over fifty years. Although some small business did exist, much of it was secretly ran out of peoples homes out of the watchful eye of the government.

In Havana, we met many small business owners. One of the first was an elderly man, named Raul, who had turned his home into an upper class restaurant, which he named Bella Habana. At the restaurant, we also met a couple that ran a restaurant consulting business and a business that professionally cleaned restaurant kitchens. I noticed right away the pride that these people had in owning their own business. This was not the general pride you think of in the U.S.. It was a genuine, puffing out their chest, “look what I own” type of pride. You could tell from their faces that being able to own a business was a new sense of self worth that the Cubans were experiencing for the very first time.

When the group traveled to Cienfuegos, we also met a man, whose name was Alien, who owned a cell phone repair business. He told us that due to the fact that owning a business was a such a new concept, it was very much a “learn as you go” situation. There was no one to learn from, many times there were no rules to follow in terms of customer dispute resolution, warranties, ect.. So he just had to deal with situations the best way he could think of as they came up.

During our travels, we met many other small business owners. While many mentioned the frustration with having to pay taxes for the first time (10% of monthly profit, then another 10% of annual profit), this frustration did not come close to out-weighing the pride they felt by owning their own business. Even though they are having to figure much of what it means to be a “business owner” by themselves, they are more than capable, and more than willing, to climb that learning curve to have something that is truly their own.