Salma Ismail: Cuba - Resilience and Renovation (June 2014)

I had a wonderful research visit in Cuba, organised and planned by Prof. Peggy Rivage-Seul (Berea College in the USA) who invited me to join a programme entitled ‘Cuba in the Twenty-First Century: Pedagogy and Promise’. When you fly into the airport in Havana and walk around everywhere in Cuba you are greeted by revolutionary posters and statues, but no advertisements, see pictures below.

The writing on the first poster says, ’We will be like Che’. Che best expresses the links with Popular Education as he stressed the moral imperative of education. For him economic sustainability was linked to education and building a consciousness of social justice and transformation (Briedlid, 2013)

The seminars took place at the Cuban Institute of Friendship (ICAP) in Havana. In addition to the seminars we visited community organisations and co-operative organic farming projects in the city. I received funding from the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at NNMU, National Research Fund and UCT.

Background: learning from seminars

In this piece I wish to share with you just a brief overview of developments in Cuba and some snapshots of a few organisations which practise Popular Education in Cuba. Cuba is a socialist country which came into existence after a revolution in 1959. This is important to note as the collective consciousness of the Cuban people was formed during this revolution against capitalism and slavery. Presently Cuba exists in a sea of hostility standing resilient in the face of the US embargo, against corporate globalisation and with no further support from the Soviet bloc.

To survive the above the Cuban state is forming alliances with anti- neoliberal social movements and governments and continues to insert its programme for development and social justice in a global neo- liberal economy. Cuba’s programme has the support of its people and therefore it is possible for Cuba to offer professional support from its teachers, doctors and technological and scientific services to other countries, mainly in the South. In addition Cuba also offers medical education inside its country to South Africa and other Latin American countries (see The Latin American School of Medicine). In this way Cuba is an illustration that another world is possible and shows that countries of the South can band together and find solutions to their problems (Professor Gilberto Valdes).

There is only one political party in Cuba: the Cuban Communist party, since the 1960s. There are assemblies through which people participate and voice their concerns. These assemblies are found at the local level in municipalities and people are directly active in them. Fidel Castro has held the presidency since the mid -60’s and stepped down in 2008 when his brother Raul Castro took over and introduced a number of economic reforms leading to what is known as a mixed economy (Professor Olga Fernandez Rios)

Cuba is in transition towards a more mixed economy but will not compromise on the gains of the revolution or socialism. These gains were carefully explained as free education from kindergarten to university/ vocational education, free medical care, subsided transport, telephone, food and housing for all, sports and cultural activities. In addition there is free education with support via TV, radio and text based resources for adults who wished to renew their skills and knowledge. They also stressed that the values such as human dignity, no racial or gender discrimination and international solidarity with countries orientated towards social transformation would be maintained in the changing economic system.

The seminars also pointed out that the Cuban states’ aim of employment for all is no longer possible because of the continued US embargo, the decline of support from ex-communist countries, decline in exports and the drain on the state revenue. However the move to a mixed economy means that Cubans can be self-employed, sell property and go into partnerships with the state to open up hotels, restaurants and rent rooms in their homes. Tourism is seen as the major change and this sector of the economy is growing and has the potential to significantly increase revenue and foreign investment (Professor Jorge Mario Sanchez).

From my observations and informal conversations tourism is also a sector that could potentially threaten the gains of the revolution as already many teachers and doctors have gone into this industry as they can earn much more here as tour guides, translators or as taxi drivers. There is evidence of social differentiation and the growth of a more privileged class. Other reforms implemented by Raul Castro are: Cubans are allowed to hold a passport and travel and have their own cell phones but these are quite expensive to use.

In terms of Cuba’s response to globalisation and neo-liberalism which has impacted negatively on the economy, one of Cuba’s responses has been to create International solidarity with Third world countries by ‘medical diplomacy’ i.e. training medical staff in Cuba, exporting its medical staff to other countries in need. Other ways of building solidarity and to improve the economy has been to exchange of human capital for oil and other needs and to gain hard currency.

In terms of demographics there are almost an equal number of women to men in the population. The status of women has vastly improved since the revolution in 1959, and women are fairly equally represented in most professions except for the hard sciences and in some sectors in the technology fields- very similar to the rest of the world. There is parity in salaries and working conditions. Women can take maternity leave of up to a year and share this with their partners. There is a high rate of divorce attributed to more women being more independent, infidelity (machismo) and the demands of parenting, the cost of living and shortage of houses as well as different ambitions (President of the Women’s Federation, Professor Norma Vasallo).

The Cubans I met complained about the limited Internet access and feel cut off from the world. Presently ordinary Cubans can access the Internet through a public facility called ETECA but cannot have Internet at home. Internet on site is only allowed for university professors, directors of companies or public facilities. Another issue of dissatisfaction amongst professionals is that they are not paid at the level of their knowledge and skills. Most professionals earn between R300-R400 per month.

Visits and observations- these were the places in communities that I visited.

All the community centres are situated in poor communities which were demographically of mixed population and black. This is an indication that social differentiation has happened and is set to increase within the mixed economy. The fact that poor communities were largely black can be attributed to Cuba’s history of slavery and to some extent racial discrimination which Cubans have only recently began to talk about and ways to end this practice.

The Martin Luther King Centre and Youth Centre both practice popular pedagogies as a way to raise consciousness about living conditions and to access resources from the state for restoration of houses, to build more houses and to fund programmes for the elderly. I participated in a dance programme for older women whose ages ranged from 70-90 and over and who out-danced me (see picture below).

The Youth Centre works closely with the university and students participate in action research (PAR) with the Centre. The research focus of the students is to evaluate youth programmes and to research social issues in the area. The programmes offered to the youth are after school activities and include activities to increase self- confidence, teach them their rights and skills such as writing poetry, letters, making presentations, putting together a magazine and art, music and dance.

The Regla Church and Museum is situated in a black area whose population are descendants from Nigeria, Yoruba and the Congo and who practice indigenous spirituality which is fused with Catholicism called Santeria. These institutions raise an income through tourism and performances of the dances which the slaves performed during Spanish rule. They still perform these today, these dances are seen as the origins of the famous carnival and dance festivals, examples can also be found in Brazil. (see picture above of the black virgin)

The Centre for Education and Social Services is another community institution which serves a poor population in the sea side resort of Veradero. This centre is uses liberation theology as a form of pedagogy. Some of their programmes are aimed at curbing prostitution which is growing and seen as a negative impact of the growing tourism industry. They host many international visitors and their income is derived from hosting conferences and donations from international churches.

Neighbourhood Street Art project in Hamel This absolutely fantastic project was started by an artist Salvador who wanted to speak about identity issues and to secure a livelihood for the neighbourhood which was in decline. He transformed the street Hamel and every house in this street has a huge mural on its wall, and the front rooms are used as bars/ cafes or as places where artists work and sell their work. On Sundays they have rumba dancing and invite tourists to buy their work (music and art) - see insert. This idea could work in SA but bear in mind that this is set in a country with low levels of crime so everything is open and one can visit any time of day or night.

Co-operative organic farms in Havana

Urban agriculture was brought to the cities during hard times –during this time the state started redistributing land to the farmers, and to local neighbourhoods in the cities. This was the start of the National Agriculture Movement- and the Cuban government drew on old farmers, the Chinese expertise in hydroponic farming and indigenous knowledge. It was also a way to encourage those unemployed to resume work and to attract young people to do manual work. By 1994, urban residents joined a planned government strategy to create 8000 city farms in Havana. These farms can take many forms these include Autoconsumos as described below, Huertas Populares, an area of land near to a centre of habitation which is divided into plots, or as Oragnoponicos, which are usually larger units established on reclaimed land and run as co-operatives by the state. There is also a programme to support the individual gardener with a small plot or even window boxes (Lambie 2010; 182-183).

An organic farm in the city is often started when the community identifies plots or unused land and approach the local municipality for the use of the land for farming. Usually the state provides the initial resources, or in some cases a company. Resources donated or bought are- the expertise to teach farming, technical advice, the seeds and equipment, materials such as bio-fertilisers and bio-pest control agents. Where the company provided the resources and training, the prices are checked by the state to ensure that the food remains affordable (Lambie 2010: 183).

After that the seeds are harvested from the existing crop. These are usually 10 workers to a farm who each have an allotment and plant different crops such as lettuce, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, radishes and repellent plants.

The workers sell the produce at the farm which is situated within the neighbourhood. So vegetables are sold locally to the neighbourhood and to restaurants and shops. The income is shared with the state – which takes a 10% tax or the company which funds the project. The rest of the income is equally shared amongst the 10 workers and they can harvest as much produce for themselves. They each earn on average of R1500 per month (more than teachers and doctors earn). If there are leftover vegetables then these are donated to NGOs or community centres.

This type of farming has made fresh vegetables and fruit affordable to many people as there are no transport, insecticides or pesticides costs. Water is collected in rain water tanks and small irrigation dams have been built for bigger farms. Much of the learning is on the job and from the project manager who is a scientist or previous farmer. The farms often host interns from other countries such as Venezuela and Canada. The farms also bring an aesthetic quality to the neighbourhood and act against pollution from the many old cars.


From the research and my observations it is evident that a high level of school education, free health care and subsided living costs and housing for all does contribute towards greater equity in society and allows for equal access to university and vocational education and by implication into the job market.

Communities can be inspired to work together to solve their problems given committed state support and resources and a state that is organised and administratively strong. Such an administration system can be achieved with high levels of education and training. Cuba has the advantage of having just one national language and almost everyone at the same social and economic status, very low levels of crime or violence and a fairly homogenous culture with lots of dancing, art and music with great rum, all of this does make their situation less complex than SA. I also noted that History is taught throughout their schooling and most Cubans are very proud of their history and always answer questions from a historical perspective- this does create a sense of self and national pride.

Popular education methods such as identifying needs, reflection and dialogue are strongly practised in community organisations and allow poor communities to articulate their needs to local municipalities who often intervene positively. Since there is a strong national consciousness of the collective and of building a vibrant society which is creative and resilient, most people work together at community level. There are significant economic changes i.e. not everybody is employed by the state, so self -employment is growing but controlled and there are moves to a more mixed economy which allows for some form of private ownership. International solidarity is advocated for and implemented by exporting Human capital and assisting in natural disasters and in literacy campaigns. Cuba is building strong links with anti- neo liberal social movements and governments in Latin America such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

My research visits in Cuba really impressed on me how there is a collective consciousness to restore the society and of self- reliance. In addition the state does take its role as a development state seriously and engages with its people nationally and locally on their needs and how to improve living conditions. However there is a threat that tourism will or can scupper the social gains and already there have been dismissals from government of corrupt officials. A more open economy does pose threats of elitism and social differentiation but the Cubans have a strong culture of sharing and solidarity which will focus their energy to continue to build an equitable society.

Salma Ismail is a senior lecturer at UCT