The power of the people
At the end of the last decade Raúl Castro's government agreed to reform education in order to slash costs. Obsessed with balances of payments, deficits and inflation, reductions in social security and education outlays seemed to be the best remedy.
Carmelo Mesa-Lago stated in an article published in Issue 81-82 of the Havana magazine Temas that during these years "Thousands of municipal university centers were closed, along with rural secondary schools, workplace cafeterias, and 42% of the hospitals and clinics; half of the family doctors were sent elsewhere, and 16% of health workers were let go."("Cubanólogos o cubanistas? ").
If public health cutbacks yielded as initial results the disgraceful death of some 30 psychiatric patients, who froze to death in the winter of 2010, in the area of Education the austerity offensive claimed an undetermined number of rural schools in the same year. While pictures of the corpses at the Psychiatric Hospital bore witness to the abandonment of it patients, the fate of Sirley Ávila is a clear indicator of the neglect of our rural schools.
Sirley Ávila was a government delegate in the district of Limones, in Majibacoa, in the province of Las Tunas, when in 2010-2011 a significant number of rural schools were closed and their students transferred to more distant facilities. From that point forward students were forced to walk long distances just to get to school.
Sirley, who acted immediately to prevent the closures, because the small rural school in Limones was also closed, said: "I was very upset when they got rid of the schools for peasants' children, those centers with for or five students. Suddenly the kids had to walk more than seven kilometers. For me it was a very big shock, as a delegate, when Education Minister Ena Elsa Velázquez stated at a round table that the measure had saved the country more than 30 million pesos; 30 million, sacrificing the people for whom the Revolution was carried out."
Sirley then began to make a long series of unfruitful entreaties to authorities at the highest echelons of State power. When she got no results the delegate decided to decry the situation on Radio Marti, pronouncing words that swept across the country, condemning the cover-up of the consequences of the State's reforms. The Government took note of Sirley's audacity and in the next elections, in 2012, the district of Limones, for which she was a delegate, was divided into several parts and added to neighboring districts in such a way that her supporters were dispersed and she was removed as a delegate.
There didn´t seem to be much more to say about that period until, in Issue 83 of Temas, there appeared the article "That school was ours. A defensive mobilization experience in Cuba" by sociologist Luis Emilio Aybar Toledo.
According to its author the Antonio Maceo primary school was located in the Consejo Popular Libertad, in the Havana municipality of Marianao, on 102nd Street between 37th and 39th. In the 2010-2011 school year the center was closed without the consent of the residents who had their children there, and despite their open mobilization and opposition. The reason they mobilized, according to Aybar Toledo, was that the school was an outstanding educational center, recognized as a "leading school," visited by international delegations, and the winner of a prized given by the Minister to the principal, who at the time of these events was working in Venezuela.
Rumors of the school's closing began to circulate in around April 2010, towards the end of what for many rural schools was their last year. Though from the outset mothers (the author of the article emphasizes the predominantly feminine make-up of the mobilization) had demanded more information about it, no one at the Ministry of Education, or the Municipal Government, or the Party's Municipal Committee, knew about or wanted to provide the people involved (“the people," as Sirley rightly calls them) with the information they requested.
"The interim principal and teachers avoided the issue and getting involved in the mobilization. Government officials denied the measure, alleged ignorance, or did not receive them," the article says.
When the news was announced the closure was already a fait accompli, and neither the mothers' indignation, nor the letters sent to the National Assembly of Popular Power and the Council of State, were able to prevent the closure of the facility and its conversion into a trade school. One mother said: "Everywhere we went, I felt that we were unwelcome."
The actions taken by Sirley Ávila, like that of the mothers at the Antonio Maceo school, illustrate that for some time now the power of the people has been supplanted by government institutions, from local to national bodies.
Aybar Toledo, the author of "That school was ours," offers a superb analysis of the event, his work containing a cogent description of the negative consequences of the "Raulist reforms," denounced by Sirley Ávila in her role as a political activist, from a social sciences perspective.