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AUGUSTA CHRONICLE: Isolated Cuba is making remarkable strides

August 8th, 2009

By Matthew Bosisio

After spending 10 days in Cuba last month with a delegation of educators, I came away with the sense that the country is doing a remarkable number of things well. Not perfectly, but well.

Education is one of those things. Every child born in Cuba is guaranteed a free education from primary school through advanced studies. It is the collective philosophy that education is a basic right and the avenue for improving society.

It stems in large part to the vision of Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, who said that "education begins with life and ends with death." Along with health care, education is the government's highest priority.

That wasn't the case in the 1950s. According to Jorge Gonzalez Corona, an adviser to the Ministry of Education and a longtime teacher who spoke with our group, half of the school-age children were not enrolled in school. Ninety percent of the education was centered in the primary schools with only 1 percent devoted to higher education.

Consequently, as 1959 rolled around, a population of 6 million people included fewer than 12 percent educated beyond the sixth-grade level.

Then came the revolution and the change in government. That is when the turn for an educated society began. Seventy military garrisons were immediately turned into schools with a curriculum that concentrated on history, math, philosophy, and basic Spanish grammar and writing.

Fidel Castro went to the United Nations in 1961 and brazenly declared that his government would "overthrow illiteracy within a year." And he proposed to do it, Gonzalez said, by recruiting 100,000 students to spread out through rural communities to educate children while living with farm families.

The prediction was a bit off -- actually several years off -- but today, with 2,000 more schools than in 1965, Cubans enjoy a literacy rate of 98 percent, one of the highest in Latin America.

The model of educational success is pretty simple, and it is being tweaked constantly. It begins with primary school classrooms that have no more than 20 pupils per teacher. In high school, the number drops to 15. If more students have to be added, a teaching aide joins the chief instructor.

Teachers stay with their students from first to sixth grades. "We do that," Gonzalez said, "because we believe that the affection and bond between the students and the teacher benefit educational acquisition." That bond also ensures that children will more likely want to be in class instead of ducking school to kick around a soccer ball.

At the higher end of the system, the focus is on preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow, the same as it is in the United States. Before the revolution, there were three universities. Today 700,000 students are enrolled in 65 universities around the country.

The current push is to build what Gonzalez called "micro universities." These are urban schools that will hold classes in junior high school buildings in the late afternoons and evenings, maximizing the investment in the buildings and allowing working adults to get additional education.

In those ways, the system is much like the American system of postsecondary education.

One major point of divergence, however, is the choice students have in preparing for the future. Education officials calculate what fields of employment are in need of workers and what areas are overexposed. They then encourage students to follow those professions that are in need of workers, thus increasing their opportunity of being employed.

If a student decides he or she wants to be a marine biologist, for example, but the field is overstocked, chances are poor that the student will be allowed to follow that dream. Instead, the student will be directed to a second or third choice where there may be a need.

While we might see that as far too much control of an individual's future, this socialist nation of 11 million had an unemployment rate last year of 1.8 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. People are working, and they seem to be satisfied with the work they do.

That may be because there is a widespread feeling for the notion of "we" vs. the notion of "I." People in Cuba care about each other and about society as a whole in ways that are uncommon here.

For instance, one rural woman told us that she lives simply and that her basic needs are met. She could use more, which was clearly evident, but she scrapes by. If the U.S. embargo were lifted, she said, her first objective would be to obtain medicines not now available so that she could share them with neighbors unable to afford them.

A small anecdote, perhaps, but multiply it by millions and you have a feel for Cuba. Where Americans embrace the sense of independence and individuality, Cubans embrace the sense of community and unity. They seem genuinely concerned about each other's welfare.

Several Cubans I met in the street and in social settings spoke not of any unhappiness with the government or their occupations or the structure of society but rather with the impact of the U.S. embargo on their lives. It is particularly acute in the availability and cost of food, medicine, electronics, clothing and construction materials.

They want to be able to trade with a country that is only 90 miles from their north shore. They want to be able to interact educationally, technologically and socially with Americans. They want the normal relationship they have with every other nation to extend to the United States.

The field of health care is another area in which Cuba does pretty well. While we Americans do gymnastics to figure out our health care system, Cubans have no similar concerns. Health care is free.

As one older man noted, his heart attack of two years ago was treated with expert medical care. When he was sent home, his focus was solely on one thing: recovery. He didn't pay one peso for his treatment or follow-up; he argued with no insurance company about coverage.

The system is not perfect, of course. For non-essential treatment, you'll find yourself on a waiting list, and the best medicines made by U.S. pharmaceutical companies are nowhere to be found. But this is a country that trains more doctors per capita than the United States, is heavily involved in cancer research and produces vaccines for 13 infectious diseases.

Not too shabby.

Cuba is building for tomorrow with what little it has. It would be a smart move if the United States would set aside 50 years of the cold shoulder and be a part of that future by offering expert assistance in electronics, education, agriculture and manufacturing. Drop the travel ban and allow Americans to visit Cuba. Restore diplomatic relations to the full.

We could do a lot to help Cubans. And Cubans could do a lot to help us.

Matthew Bosisio is an assistant professor of communication in the Department of Communications & Professional Writing at Augusta State University.