A highly educated population?
Since 1959 the Government of Cuba has allocated considerable resources to its national educational system. The literacy campaign of 1961, the appropriation of private schools, intervention at universities and the creation of new, specialized institutions were, according to the official propaganda, measures to transform the island into a "world power in education." At the same time, the aim was to create a system of indoctrination that would shape the people's thinking, right from early childhood, into Marxist-Leninist-Castroist ideology.
Ever since throughout the world the regime's chorus of kowtowers has touted the spectacular development of education as one of the Cuban Revolution's "achievements." These triumphalist proclamations are based more on slogans and manipulated statistics disseminated by the Government in Havana than on objective and verifiable data provided by international organizations.
Without considering the anthropological damage they have inflicted on several generations of Cubans through the incessant indoctrination practiced over the years in classrooms, and the need to feign an enthusiastic adherence to "revolutionary" values in order to continue to study, it is possible to evaluate the results of the Castroist educational system based on objective and measurable criteria.
The first thing that jumps out is the poor quality of university education. Whatever the international classification system consulted (Shanghai, Oxford or CSIC), Cuba's top institution, the University of Havana does not even stand among the top 1,000 in the world. For example, in the most recent ranking by Spain’s Superior Council of Scientific Research (CSIC), the University of Havana is ranked 20th in the Caribbean, behind institutions in Mexico, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, and 1,741st in the world. That is, the world features some 1,740 universities, some in very poor countries in Asia and Africa, topping Cuba's best institution of higher learning.
It should be noted that these entities' ranking systems are becoming more and more sophisticated each year, taking into account cultural differences, the economic context, and internal organization. The assessment, addressing visibility, impact and activities, is determined by a wide range of indicators of institutional and academic prestige, such as articles in specialized publications, research results, the publishing of high-level material, the use of new technologies, international recognition, etc. These scores, combined on a weighted basis, yield a numerical index that determines the institution's rank in the international hierarchy. It would be absurd to think that these ranking agencies operate in a coordinated manner, beholden to the CIA, with the intention of discrediting the Cuban government. The Island's universities simply do not measure up and meet the educational and research needs of the contemporary world.
This is the despite more than half a century of colossal investments, preferential attention lavished on the education sector, "pedagogical innovation" along the lines of Makarenko and Castro I, and systematic efforts to create the "new man," an objective now hardly spoken about on the Island. It should not be forgotten that that the starting point for Cuba's educational system in 1960, both public and private, was relatively advanced for a country of intermediate development and that, with an illiteracy rate approaching 20%, hardly scandalous for the time. In that year the global average was 40% (Mexico: 30%; Puerto Rico: 11%, Chile: 10%, Argentina: 9%). Although one will be able to find Castroist websites stating that during the Republic "each year the army of illiterate adults increased," the fact is that since 1902 the number of Cubans who could read and write increased from 30% to 80% of the population.
The deficiencies in university education do nothing more than encapsulate and reflect the problems plaguing the Cuban education system and society as a whole. Essentially, Castroism's educational policy has been based on extension and massification, at the expense of quality. The main objective has been to make everyone capable of reading, even if only a handful of political slogans, and to sign their names, in order to proclaim the Island "a territory free of illiteracy," and then fight the "battle of the sixth grade" to give everyone a certificate; and, finally, place a college diploma in the hands of the greatest possible number of young people, without stopping to consider academic standards and students' true vocations.
This policy has given rise to some very curious situations. In 1980, two decades after the Castro government declared that the entire population was literate, some 35,000 exiles reached Key West from the Port of Mariel. US authorities found that about 7% of those forming part of the Mariel boatlift were functionally illiterate; that is, they were not able to read and understand a simple form and complete it.
When considering this fact it must be borne in mind that the vast majority of these emigrants were from urban areas, and were adults between the age of 20 and 40. What must have been the real literacy among people over the age of 50 living in rural areas on the Island? This is not known, among other reasons because the Cuban government has never conducted a follow-up study to determine the effectiveness of its famous literacy campaign of 1961, and the likely relapses into illiteracy due to disuse among older adults living in the countryside, who received summary educations for a few weeks and then did not crack another book for the rest of their lives. This is just one example of many that merits skepticism when it comes to the regime's triumphalism about education in Cuba.
The general assessments issued by the ranking agencies, which use statistical criteria to comparatively score educational systems – something which may seem very abstract – are borne out, in my particular experience, by the empirical data from almost 20 years of work at the UNESCO. As everyone knows, the UNESCO is the UN organization dealing with Education, Science and Culture.
During the performance of my duties at the headquarters of this organization I often had to deal with professionals who had graduated from Cuban universities. Except for some scarce and commendable exceptions, these graduates stood out for their astonishing ignorance of the most basic topics, their anachronistic knowledge and their lack of general cultural literacy. Some of them had even been university professors, but did not know the most elementary facts in the fields of History, Geography and other subjects normally studied in primary school. They wrote poorly in Spanish, could not spell correctly, and exhibited obvious limitations when it came to working in other languages.
Due to their pervasiveness, these deficiencies cannot be attributed to a set of Cuban university graduates' lack of intelligence or ability, but rather highlight gaps in the educational system's content and methods.
The quality of higher education on the Island has also suffered due to the lack of academic freedom, comprehensive politicization, and the imposition of Marxist orthodoxy, an anachronistic ideology whose erroneous predictions and weak arguments had been exposed as early as the 19th century. To all the above must be added the low educational level from which students suffer right from primary education throughout the secondary level, destining them to enter college with the aforementioned deficiencies.
This characteristic is, in turn, linked to shortages of teachers and their poor training. Although in the past decade the school population has decreased each year as a result of migration and the demographic crisis, there are barely enough primary school teachers, and the Government has had to resort to retired teachers to cover the gap. Apparently there is not much interest among young people in studying Pedagogy and undertaking careers in teaching.
The situation is exacerbated by the scant career prospects that the system offers its graduates. Massification and "free" university studies have ended up creating several generations of frustrated people adorned with devaluated degrees that are of little use because a) they lack the knowledge necessary to occupy the positions their degrees should qualify them for and b) the country's socioeconomic structure cannot offer them employment commensurate with their qualifications anyway. This is why there are engineers in Cuban cities driving taxis, ex-architects serving up mojitos at restaurants, and biologists now working as tour guides, as well as a multitude of sex workers who, as Fidel said in 1998, "are the most educated in the world."
The idea that in the future, once Castro is gone, Cuba will be able to rapidly develop, because it has "a highly educated population," is a form of wishful thinking. Like so many other aspects of the regime, the education system is a gigantic fraud serving the propaganda needs of the State, which draws inspiration not from Makarenko or Lunacharski, but rather Grigori Potemkin, Catherine the Great's lover, who adorned the country's impoverished villages like theatre stages, with flowers placed in the windows and dapper peasants smiling as they waved to the imperial procession passing by.