Throughout its history, the government of Cuba has made education a top national priority. In fact, the Cuban constitution of 1940 provides for the compulsory education of all children. Cuba has some of the highest literacy and educational rates of all Latin America. During the 1950s, Cuba’s 76% literacy rate was the fourth highest in the region. There have been some inequalities in access to educational resources and opportunities between rural and urban areas, however.
With the revolution of the 1950s, the new government ushered in significant social change in Cuba. The government of Fidel Castro established an educational system that was based on Communist principles. Students combine learning with manual labor. The government established a staggered system of enhanced educational goals, starting with compulsory 6th grade, then 9th grade and ultimately 12th grade minimums.
During the year 1961, the Cuban government embarked on a new campaign across the country to fight illiteracy. The government formed what it called educational brigades. These were composed primarily of high school and university students. The students who participated in this program became known as brigadistas. The young people volunteered to assist campesinos or peasants in rural parts of the country to learn how to read and write. The Castro government formed additional groups within the workplace that assisted workers learn to read and write. Moreover night schools were established and workers were encouraged to take classes at these schools.
According to statistics from the Cuban government, during a year-long national effort aimed at combating illiteracy, 707,212 people learned to read, achieving at a level of reading and writing equivalent to that of first-grade student. As a result of these efforts, Cuba’s illiteracy rate dropped from over 20 percent in 1958 to 3.9 percent after the literacy drive conducted in 1961. This represented a rate far lower at that point in time than that of any other Latin American nation. Prior to 1959 over 40% of children did not go to school in Cuba. By the end of 1961 80% did attend school. The major reason for this achievement was the increase in teachers in rural parts of the country.
Approximately 25,000 new schools have been established in Cuba since the revolution. In rural parts of the country, where schools did not exist previously, new schools were built by the government. Even the most remote parts of the country had schools. For the very first time in the history of Cuba the campesinos had schools in their communities and opportunities for education.
The course of primary education in Cuba lasts for six years. During the course of their education, students learn basic Communist principles, including that God does not exist and that religion is what Lenin called it: “the opium of the masses.” If a student discusses God, his or her parents will be called to the school. They will be advised that they are “confusing” their child and they will be threatened with sanctions. The Code for Children, Youth and Family actually calls for a three-year prison sentence for parent who teaches a child ideas contrary to Communism and Communist principles. The Code provides: No Cuban parent has the right to “deform” the ideology of a child. The state is the true parent of all children. Article 8 of Code provides: “Society and the state work for the efficient protection of youth against all influences contrary to their Communist formation.”
In primary school what is known as the “Cumulative School File” is created. This is similar to a report card, but it is not limited to academic achievements. The File also measures “revolutionary integration” of the student and of the student’s family. The File documents whether or not the child and family participate in mass demonstrations or whether they belong to a church or religious group as well as other factors.
The Cumulative School file accompanies the child throughout his or her life and is updated frequently. A child’s university educational options depend on what is contained in the File. If the child does not profess a truly Marxist faith, as an adult he or she will be denied many career opportunities.
There are two divisions of the secondary education system in Cuba today. The system includes basic secondary education and pre-university secondary education. At the end of basic secondary education, pupils can choose between pre-university education or technical and professional education. Those who complete pre-university education are awarded what is called the Bachillerato. On the other hand, technical training leads to two levels of certification: skilled worker and middle-level technician. Successful completion of this cycle gains a student access to the technological institutes.
In Cuba, advanced of higher education is provided by universities, higher institutes of learning, higher pedagogical institutes, centres of higher education and higher polytechnic institutes. All higher education institutions are public. Since the revolution, the Ministerio de Educación Superior (MES) oversees policy pertaining to undergraduate and postgraduate education. The MES controls teaching, methodology, courses and programmes. It also determines the allocation of student spaces in different facilities of higher learning. The MES also develops the specialization of courses that will be offered by centres of higher education which come under the control of other ministries in the country.
As in many other countries, in order for a student to enter a university, he or she is required to pass an entry examination to demonstrate that he or she possesses the basic knowledge and background required for admission. In order to take this examination in the first instance, a student needs a letter from what is known as the Committee for the Defense Revolution. The CDR vouches for the “political and moral background” of a prospective student. It is reported that many people are unable to take the entrance examination because the letter from the CDR ends up being unfavorable. For example, in one instance a student was not allowed to take the examination because his CDR letter stated that he “had friendly relations with elements who wished to leave the country.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Carl-Johan Groth has written about the steps a student needs to take in Cuba to obtain a higher education:
“According to the information received, the so-called ‘cumulative school record’ and ‘employment record’ make it possible to monitor the ideological integration of individuals virtually throughout their lives, by including not only purely academic or employment-related material, but also information regarding their membership in mass organizations, functions performed in such organizations, level of activism, ideological features of family members, misconduct, etc. Often individuals are expelled from educational institutions, dismissed from their jobs or subjected to some form of discrimination for expressing, in some way, views inconsistent with the official ideology.”
The Cuban government, since the revolution, maintains that it is working hard to develop high education standards. In 1995, the overall evaluation of Cuba’s education system brought it in second to only Argentina of thirteen Latin American nations that were studied and surveyed.
Overall, education in Cuba at all levels is essentially free. In 1961, all private educational institutions were nationalized. There are no tuition charges for higher education. Some argue that education is not really free as a student between 7th and 12th grade must work for free for 30 days every year. Normally this is manual labor. Moreover, a person who obtains a higher education is then required to spend three years doing what is known as “social service” work wherever needed.
By 1993, 90% of the eligible student population actually was enrolled in school. In addition to the far flung primary school system in Cuba, there are over 2,100 secondary schools and more than 50 centers for advanced learning.
In Cuba there are 11 universities. The largest university is the University of Havana which actually was founded in 1728. Other major institutions of higher education include: the University of Camagüey, the University of Cienfuegos, the University of Granma, Central University of Las Villas, and the University of Oriente.
The government of Cuba has also established a comprehensive system of nursery schools or care facilities. Day care centers have been established which only require families to pay very modest fees for these services.
A UNESCO study that was undertaken in 1998 demonstrated that Cuban students demonstrated a high level of education competence and achievement. On standardized tests, they scored 1/3 higher that students in the region in basic language and mathematical skills. Even the lower half of students in Cuba scored higher than the highest scoring half of students in other Latin American nations.
Over 10% of Cubans now have degrees from institutions of higher education or have tertiary-level certifications. The country now also boosts nearly 200 technical and scientific research centres throughout the country. Cuba has developed a particularly strong reputation in medical research, genetic engineering and biotechnology. Cuba is spending nearly 7% of its gross national product on education at the present point in time.
In today’s Cuba, despite the U.S. embargo, statistics illustrate that the Cuban educational system is functioning well. There are over 400,000 students enrolled in various schools. There is nearly a 100% retention rate for students in school. The student to teacher ratio is 13 students for each teacher. There are nearly 25,000 university professors and instructors teaching in institutions of higher education in Cuba today.
UNICEF studies have concluded that Cuba has the best education system in the so-called Third World and one of the best education systems in the world.