October 16, 2000

Elian gets an education -- in contradictory world of Cuban schools

                  HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- Elian Gonzalez is just one of 2 million children back in
                  Cuban classrooms this fall, participants in a school system caught in the
                  conflicting realities of the island nation's communist system.

                  Cuba's schools are unarguably successful at producing teachers, doctors and
                  other professionals. Its education levels are the highest in Latin America. Cuba
                  has more doctors per capita than the United States.

                  Yet, it's a system struggling to find money to install computers _ without access,
                  in most cases, to the potentially unsettling Internet.

                  It's a system that teaches socialist ideology -- but whose students will enter an
                  economy increasingly tinged by capitalism, with the most lucrative jobs in
                  tourism and off-the-books businesses.

                  It's a system that teaches respect for the value of labor by having high-school
                  students perform a few weeks of agricultural work each year.

                  The irony, critics say, is that the schools deliver an education that prepares
                  Cubans well for the workplace -- if they leave to find jobs somewhere else.

                  Elian, like most Cuban second graders, will polish the cursive writing he began to
                  learn in first grade, ahead of many contemporaries in U.S. grade schools who
                  still struggle with block letters at that age.

                  "They come out of the first grade knowing how to read and write," said Maria
                  Elena Ramirez, director of a neatly painted grade school in a two-century-old
                  building in Old Havana. "You can use different methods, but you teach both
                  reading and writing in one year."

                  "I think they probably push you more here" in academic subjects, said Edgar
                  Espinosa, a seventh grader from Englewood, California, who spent a month in
                  Cuba on a theater project as part of an exchange sponsored by the Los
                  Angeles-based performance troupe Equal Opportunities.

                  The rigorous approach -- illustrated by Espinosa and other young Americans
                  lounging in the theater's aisles while Cuban students sat attentively in rows of
                  seats -- doesn't always pay off.

                  If Elian wants to earn good money, he might do better by working like his father,
                  as a cashier at a beach resort, rather than going on to college.

                  Doctors, teachers and scientists earn a peso-denominated government salary that
                  is a tiny fraction of what a busboy at a Havana restaurant or the Varadero beach
                  resort can earn in dollars in the booming tourism industry.

                  "The best way to get along here is not to study much. If you just get to the sixth
                  grade, you'll have no problems," said Dr. David Cohen, a 30-year-old physician
                  who can't emigrate despite his marriage to a citizen of the Dominican Republic.

                  Doctors aren't allowed to emigrate for at least four years after their training
                  because the government says it has invested too much in their education.

                  Cubans tell a joke about a doctor whose wife accuses him of having delusions of
                  grandeur: He tells people he is a bellhop at a tourist hotel.

                  Still, many Cubans view their education system in almost mystical terms, as the
                  shining product of a titanic struggle.

                  At a huge, flag-waving government rally last month south of Havana, Manuel
                  Fonseca described a childhood of illiteracy in the mountains of central Cuba,
                  until Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution provided schooling for him at age 15.

                  "When I was illiterate, I was like a walking dead person," said Fonseca, who
                  went on to become a grade school teacher. "I didn't know the world. ... Now I
                  can mold future generations."

                  But Maria Vega, a 24-year-old who loves her work as a kindergarten teacher --
                  but spends her evenings hoping to rustle up a free meal or a few dollars from
                  tourists in Havana -- sees things differently.

                  "My salary doesn't provide for anything," Vega said.

                  Like other Cuban teachers, she earns about 180 Cuban pesos ($8) a month,
                  although that doesn't tell the whole financial story. Heavy government subsidies
                  mean Cubans pay only nominal amounts on things like rent, utilities,
                  transportation and most basic foodstuffs, while all medical care is free.

                  Still, while consumer goods are more widely available in Cuba than ever, they
                  can be had only for dollars, a currency hard to come by for teachers and other

                  "That's why they keep losing teachers," Vega said. "Who wants to do this for
                  eight dollars per month?"

                  Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.