"Study, work, rifle"
Cuba's educational system presses revolutionary message along with ABC's
On page 56 of Cuba's first-grade reading textbook, students are
through a combination of words and drawings that the letter ``F'' stands for
Felito, a child's name, and fusil, a military rifle.
``Felito sharpens the mocha [a short machete],'' read the practice
sentences in ¡A Leer!. ``Beside it, he places the fusil.''
Just below the surface of those simple words lies a deeper meaning,
Communist concept that students in the Cuban educational system quickly
learn, whether they choose to embrace it or not: ``Estudio, Trabajo,
Fusil.'' Study, Work, Rifle.
The phrase is not just the political motto for Cuba's Communist
Union. It has also been the center of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's hope for
the future of Communism on the island: the interlocking of education
and political indoctrination.
Last October, the government made it clear that ideological content
schools is a top priority. In closing the government's second national
education workshop -- held in Santiago de Cuba -- Rolando Alfonso
Borges, head of the Ideological Department of the Cuban Communist
Party's Central Committee, declared:
"The front line of political-ideological work with children is
school, and the first
soldiers are teachers and other education workers. We have to put our hearts into
political-ideological work, and it must be done in a systematic way, where each
section of the educational system has specific responsibilities that it must
account for and which the party must control.''
This past school year, children were pulled out of school more
than ever to attend
government-orchestrated rallies demanding the return of Elián González.
And according to Santiago Press, an independent press agency in
Cuba, the government
has stepped up indoctrination efforts outside school. It has created a junior version of
neighborhood spy networks for children ages 4 to 13. The agency reported in January
that the first children's committee was formed in Cuevitas, near Santiago de Cuba, under
the motto: ``Vigilance, fundamental duty of the child.''
But despite the government's heightened efforts, parents and dissidents
combination of limited career and job opportunities and the bleak reality of daily
life under Communism have conspired to make it harder for Castro to indoctrinate
``A lot of young people visit my home and they have many concerns,
themselves why Cubans don't have the same rights as others do -- can't go to
college, can't rent a hotel room in their own city,'' said one Havana parent, Lázara
Brito. ``They say `I'm burning the midnight oil and for what? I can make more
money selling pizza from my house.' These kids are different than those of past
Political indoctrination is the part of the Cuban educational
mentioned alongside the praise that the country receives for achieving
near-universal literacy, for having one of the best academic performances among
Latin American countries according to UNESCO, and for developing top-notch
BACK TO SCHOOL
Officials will start dossiers on students
As American students head back to school this month for another
year of math,
science and grammar, children starting school in Cuba will learn songs and poems
about Castro and Cuban Revolution heroes such as Che Guevara and Celia Sánchez.
Officials will start a dossier on each student, where not only their grades, but
their political and religious activities will be recorded. The expediente acumulativo
escolar, as the dossier is called, will follow the student to his or her job, where bosses
will keep similar tabs.
Elementary school students of both sexes will automatically become
Pioneers, a kind of Communist version of the Boy Scouts with a heavy military and
watchdog bent. They'll perform neighborhood watches, in which, generally
accompanied by adults, they'll question passersby for identification, and keep an
eye on neighbors.
Middle and high-school students will start their school days by
singing anthems and
reciting speeches about a figure of the Cuban Revolution, or talk about a current or
historical event -- from the Communist perspective. Their teachers will start each
class with 15 more minutes of similar discussion, as required by law. Students
will learn how to clean, assemble and use weapons.
Students with college aspirations must join and remain active
in the Communist
Youth Union. They must take part in numerous conferences, marches, rallies and
more military training. They must spend 45 days of their summer at a country
school, working in fields during the morning and attending classes in the
``They say education in Cuba is free, but we have it on very hard
said. ``Education in Cuba has a political foundation. It doesn't make students
think. It teaches them that the Cuban way is the right way and everything outside
it is wrong.''
Meanwhile, say detractors, teachers are leaving the profession
in droves for
better-paying work in the tourist sector and the government is hastily filling
vacancies with graduate education students.
``The goal of this system is to create false nationalism -- something
that has hurt
our youth tremendously,'' said Roberto De Miranda, president of El Colegio de
Pedagogos Independientes (the Independent Teachers' Association) in Havana.
``It is a grotesque invention, a lie that has been perpetrated for 40 years.''
And it's all for naught, he said.
``There isn't one young person on the island who believes in Communism,''
said. ``Our youth is more rebellious by the day and less [academically] prepared.
They reject the system because there is too much manipulation. We are fooling
ourselves if we think otherwise.''
When Castro took over in 1959, he considered education a key tool
for his dream
of creating a New Society, where a New Man would be molded to be devoted to
the causes of revolution and Communism.
He declared 1961 ``the year of education.'' Education was nationalized,
private schools were
ordered closed, and a sweeping literacy campaign was started, designed to indoctrinate the country's
illiterate population -- then estimated at 24 percent -- while teaching people to read.
The regime's first minister of education visited Russia, and brought
back ideas on blending
education, physical labor and political ideology.
Old textbooks were replaced with ideologically correct new ones.
Literature contrary to
Communism was banned, and in its place, students began to read, analyze and write about
Castro's lengthy speeches.
``The concept is to use education as an instrument to create a
new man, whose
god is revolution,'' said Luis Zúñiga, director of the human rights division of the
Cuban American National Foundation, author of a booklet on the Cuban education
system titled The Children of Fidel Castro.
In 1978, the government passed the 116-article Code of the Child,
statements on the importance of the Marxist-Leninist formation of children and on
the need for the state to protect children ``against all influences contrary to their
To many parents, that simply means that the government takes away
potestad -- parents' right to choose for their children.
This is one of the fundamental lessons Lázara Brito says
her 9-year-old son,
Isaac Cohen, is learning in his Havana elementary: ``Two sets of morality.''
Every day, she says, when Isaac's teacher asks him a politically
he gives her the expected answer, while harboring in his heart the very different
values that Brito has taught him at home.
``He tells me `Mommy, I tell her what she wants to hear,''' Brito
said. Brito, wife of
Miami resident José Cohen, and their three children -- Isaac, Yamila, 13, and
Yanelis, 16 -- were put in the spotlight during the Elián González case because
they have been denied permission to join Cohen despite having visas since 1996.
The children have been harassed in school because of the family's decision to
Although he is only 9, Isaac, who will start fourth grade Sept.
1, is an old hand at
duplicity by necessity, Brito said. The boy has gotten one type of education at
school, and another one at home, since he entered state-run pre-school, where
children are fed indoctrination, sometimes literally, as candy.
In one pre-school and kindergarten lesson all Cuban families are
familiar with, the
teacher asks students whether they believe God exists. Children who respond
`yes' are asked to close their eyes and ask God for a piece of candy. When they
open their eyes and their hands are empty, the teacher asks them to close their
eyes again. This time, the teacher says, ask Fidel for the candy.
When they do, the teacher places a piece of candy in each of their hands.
``See,'' the teacher will say, ``there is no God. There is only Fidel.''
Another example from ¡A Leer! (``Let's Read''), the first-grade
introduces children to a pillar of Cuban education -- anti-Americanism -- through a
poem titled Girón, after the embattled beach in 1961's Bay of Pigs Invasion:
April is a very pretty month.
In April, the flowers bloom.
And April is the month of Girón.
One time, in April, the Yankees attacked us. They sent a lot of bad people.
They wanted to destroy the free Cuba. The people defeated them.
Fidel led the
And these days, Brito said, math word problems are about Cuba's
lawsuit against the United States. In May, Cuba's government demanded that the
United States pay $121 billion in damages for causing economic harm to the
island through the U.S. trade embargo. Washington has never commented on the
At the end of the last school year, Isaac brought home a survey
that Brito was
supposed to help him fill out. A sampling of the questions:
No. 10: Put the following activities in order, according to your
tastes. Among the
choices: pionero campouts, neighborhood watch, neighborhood clean-up,
marches, watching television, attending church, and going to a disco.
No. 14: Before the Revolution, your school building used to belong
to people who
now live in the United States. Now, through the Helms-Burton Law, they are
reclaiming it from over there. What is your opinion about this situation?
Because indoctrination in schools starts early, parents start
children early as well, said Jesús Yanes Pelletier, a Havana parent and dissident.
Yanes has a daughter, 14, and a son, 11, both in middle school.
``After school, I sit them down and I tell them, `Everything that
they taught you
today is a lie,' '' Yanes said. ``It's difficult for parents to make the time to do it, but
we have to.''
`Country school' often means cheap labor, shabby conditions
But as his daughter Jenny grows up, Yanes says he's had more than
course work to worry about. He dreads her having to attend a so-called ``country
For 45 days, middle and high school students are sent to school/work-camps
the countryside, where they toil in the fields for half the day, then attend classes.
Other students attend country boarding schools, where children work and study
the entire school year, and can only go home on a weekend pass.
The idea behind the country schools is to allow the student to
develop a sense of
community and teamwork while learning about the country's crops. In reality, say
parents and teachers, it translates into cheap labor in often shabby conditions --
and an opportunity for children to grow up too fast.
Promiscuity, pregnancies, thefts, smoking and escapes to nearby
common occurrences, said Emilia Ruvira, a former drawing teacher in a Havana
technical high school, now living in Miami.
Ruvira helped supervise a country school as part of her duties.
``The school was a wooden house, like a shed, that had bare cement
outhouses and horrible food,'' she remembered. ``There were six teachers and
some staff there -- 10 people in all to supervise 300 kids. At 15, you want to
discover a lot of things. Almost everybody had sexual relations. And with
contraceptives being over the counter, it was easy.''
That scenario is what Yanes fears her daughter would inevitably be caught up in.
``My daughter has not and never will she go to la escuela al campo,''
``The kids do what they want. Sometimes girls and boys sleep in the same room,
divided by a sheet. Thousands of girls have gotten pregnant -- by teachers
This year, a doctor's note managed to keep Jenny from country
year, Yanes said, he's going to have to get creative.
Andrés, a photographer who sells his work at the artist
market alongside the
Malecón in Vedado, said he has started worrying about it early: His son is nine
months old. When he reaches high school, Andrés and his wife Ana say, they'll
find a doctor to say their boy has a spinal cord problem.
``These are the tricks we do,'' Andrés said.
At 17, Marcos De Miranda, one year away from graduating college,
out of his Havana high school. The reason:
``They wanted him to say, in front of all his classmates, that
his father was
anti-social,'' said Roberto De Miranda, Marcos' father.
When Marcos, now 21, refused, the elder De Miranda said, ``his
lowered and he was thrown out.''
It was a matter of principle, said Roberto De Miranda, but it
was a costly and
bitter consequence -- one that is hard to make his other children, who have
suffered harassment at school, understand.
``My kids tell me, `Dad, we can't study, and it's your fault that
languishing,' '' Roberto De Miranda said. ``Then I have to talk to them about
dignity, decorum and principle.''
While he admires his son for standing up to his beliefs, the elder
De Miranda can't
help lamenting his and others' futures being cut short.
``How many kids, how many doctors and engineers have we lost because
although their grades were good, they just didn't fit in politically?''
Certainly, Yanelis Cohen Brito is one.
The 16-year-old last saw the inside of a classroom a year ago,
when she passed
ninth grade. It was a bittersweet time -- she'd earned excellent notes, said her
mother, but she was told she couldn't enroll in high school because her family
was planning to leave the country.
Now she sits at home all day, frustrated.
When Yanelis was expelled, school officials called her friends'
them they shouldn't let their children associate with Yanelis.
Despite that, children have taken to gathering at the girl's home after school.
``I hear their conversations and they are full of frustration
and anxiety,'' Brito said.
But most important, she said, ``they have started to think.''
``My generation was much more successfully indoctrinated,'' said
``They more than any other generation see the difference between what they're
being taught and real life.''
Andrés, the photographer, shows a picture he took of a
young Cuban boy in a
school uniform and Pioneer scarf.
Next to the student is an ad picturing a smiling delivery man
holding a package.
There is irony in the juxtaposition, Andrés said. The boy is waiting for something,
too -- his package, his future, much as Andrés himself did, years ago.
He said he had the typical Cuban childhood: he was a Pioneer,
worked in the
fields, learned how to shoot and clean a gun and march.
``To be prepared,'' he said, laughing.
Andrés laughed. ``I don't know.''