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EL Latin America 2016: Cuba – what really matters

The Literacy Museum Cuba Jeremy Harmer

Jeremy Harmer goes back to the island and is reminded of its proud educational tradition

In Birán, on the estate where Fidel Castro and his brother Raul were born and grew up, the Escuela Rural Mixta (a tiny one-room school) is still there and being used. Education provided the brothers (and their sisters) with a stepping-off point for all that would follow.

Back in La Habana there is the Literacy Museum, a modest but incredible record of the moment in 1961 when the youth of Cuba (mostly teenage girls, but some as young as 11) spread out all over the island and, as volunteers, eradicated illiteracy in just a few months. There was sacrifice too, but that’s another story.

So when in March 2016 I made my third visit to Cuba, at the invitation of the British Council and the Cuban higher education ministry, I was involving myself in a proud educational tradition. Together with Eduardo Garbey, Isora Enriquez Offaril and Greta Apkeneye I was taking part in a road show, working with teachers in universities at Santiago, Holguin, Santa Clara and La Habana.

Working with Cuban teachers is very like working with teachers everywhere – except that it isn’t! Something is significantly different.

The teachers I worked with were fun, funny, committed and highly motivated. No one could have asked for more. That was beautiful to be involved with but, as I have suggested, unsurprising. Time and time again, however, I was about to say or suggest something which in other places I take for granted (about access to the internet, for example – but not only that) only to realise that I was in a different world – a world where essential teaching skills are what really matters, especially because the technological world that some of us take for granted is not there to lean on.

It’s refreshing for a trainer to be in that situation. There are shared coursebooks, often, and a powerful success ethic, but this is – for a European like me – teaching in the raw, and in some ways (but only some!) all the better for it.

What makes Cuba so different of course is the sense of time standing still – the 1950s cars, the clapped-out trucks and buses, the horse-drawn public transport. And all because of the blockade that was imposed when, instead of embracing the profound change the country was going through at the beginning of the 1960s, the USA decided Castro and his gang were communists and drove them into the arms of the Soviets. But then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was left with nothing, absolutely nothing. The dreaded periodo especial. And yet, despite that, they somehow kept their health and education systems going. Something to be proud of, I reckon!

Does that mean Cuba should stand still so that we (tourists, educationists, etc.) can enjoy it? No, of course not. And anyway President Obama has been and the first monstrous American cruise ship has docked in La Habana. The world is coming in. But as one proud Cuban told me, ‘You think we are going to change because of that? Think again.’

We’ll see. 

Pic caption: The Literacy Museum - Cuba - Copyright: Jeremy Harmer