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Reflections on Changes in Cuba—
February 2008

By Larry Kuehn, Director, Research and Technology, BC Teachers’ Federation

I was not surprised when Fidel announced he would not be serving as president again when the new National Assembly was to elect the president for the next five years.  The signs of change were obvious when three of us from the BCTF were in Cuba in early February for the Congress of the teachers’ union (SNTECD).

The Congress of the union occurs every five years.  We knew that a change was taking place in the leadership.  Luis Abreau, who had been general secretary for the past twenty years, had already left office a few months ago and been replaced on an interim basis by Ismael Drullet Perez.  Luis had gone to head up a project in one of the states of Mexico.  He is running a Cuban-style literacy crusade to teach adults to read and write, with teachers going out in the evenings as literacy volunteers.  The former international secretary, Margarita Rodriguez, had also gone to work in the project.

We accepted the invitation to the Congress because we wanted to meet the new officers and ensure that they knew we wanted to continue the second-language pedagogy in-service program that we have been a partner in for most of the last decade.  We felt that taking up their invitation to the Congress, especially with the BCTF president taking part, was important if the new leadership was to know that we value the project highly.

We hadn’t realized, though, just how much of a change was taking place in the leadership.  In fact, of the seven members of the secretariat, six had not previously been in office.  This is the group that work full time as officers of the union.  All of them are young—born since the 1959 revolution.  Six of the seven are Afro-Cuban, whose grandparents were probably marginalized in society, certainly not in leadership positions in what must be the largest union in Cuba. 

Of the new full executive, 10 of 13 are women. 

The union members are not just teachers, but also all education officials, right up to the minister (who was a part of the social events as well as the meetings).  It also includes those involved in sports, such as coaches.

Clearly a policy decision had been made to bring a new generation into the leadership of the union.  It did seem, as well, to be part of a broader transition.  Luis Abreau not only left the leadership of the union, but he also was not on the list for election to the National Assembly, where he had served for some time as well.

Fidel leaving the post of president seems to be part of a general transition taking place in the country.  It is a transition that I don’t expect will lead to the collapse or uprising that George Bush has called for. 

That is not, of course, to say that there are not many problems or that they are not reflected in the education system.  The delegates at the Congress talked about a lot of issues that concern them. 

Cuba has an incredible commitment to education.  It spends 18% of its gross domestic product on education—well over twice what any other country, rich or poor, spends.  In Canada, for example, we spend about 6%.  The maximum class size is 20.  But we did hear about the problems that teachers perceive, even with those conditions. 

Unions in a Marxist state have a different function than in a capitalist system.  It is a “transmission belt” that carries the messages of the state and party to the members.  But it also can carry the messages the other way, as well, as we saw in the Congress.  And some of those messages have similarities to those one hears at a teacher union meeting in Canada.

The initial framing of the message of the Congress was in a report read by the new secretary general.  Following quotes from Fidel and Raul, it was a report on the previous five-year plan, with reductions in class size being a major element.  It then outlined the program for the next five-year period, when there would be a new Congress. 

Then the floor was open to speakers from among the 600 or so teachers from around the country.  Every seat in the conference centre had a microphone and individuals were called on by the secretary general.  The people being called on were clearly on a list that he had and most didn’t make long speeches, although there was no apparent pressure to cut them off or to have a timer.

My notes from listening to the translation show that the first speakers made statements of loyalty to the revolution.  A woman who identified herself as from the Island of Youth addressed her message to the chief—if continuation of the revolution depends on blood, you can count on my blood, she said.

The messages soon shifted, however, to practical matters of teachers and classrooms.  The secretary general from Havana province complained that the new collective agreement was not being recognized and followed by administrators.  As a union, he said, we have an obligation to demand that the collective agreement is a living document that shapes our work.  There would be a better sense of belonging by teachers if the collective agreement was a living document.

A number of speakers talked about the need to “close the exit door of people leaving the profession.”  Not enough young people want to be teachers and the role of the union has to be strong to create more attractive conditions.

One of the members from the sports organization said that “we have to make ideology conform to reality.”  An element of this reality was that teachers in areas other than sports make more money.  “It is hard to live on this,” he said, “and we have to get better conditions.”  He talked about the fact that athletes in other countries get economic advantages, but closed by pointing out that of athletes who had performed internationally, four had stayed away, but 600 had returned.  To heavy applause, he said “they will regret always the choice they have made.”  I think he meant the four.

Membership in the union is not compulsory and fees are not deducted from pay, but must be collected by a union representative in the school.  One of the speakers said that affiliation is central and this has to be seen as key work for the union.  But when the union is too far from the workers, she said, people lose confidence in the union and see it just as the collection of fees.

A representative from Pinar del Rio continued the theme that the union had to focus on issues of concern to teachers and then they would be more willing to pay dues.  Another complained that preparation for union meetings was not adequate.  Another said the executive of the union needs to be more focused on local teachers and not just have a national and global focus.

A member from Santiago said that the union should represent the grass roots to the top.  There should be analysis of the situation at the local level—and the union should identify solutions.  He also described what he called a “cultural revolution,” by which he meant that the expectation of students is now that they are taught four times as much as was formerly the case and consequently an intensification of the work of teachers.

A delegate from Pinar de Rio pointed out that the 19th Congress of the Communist Party had endorsed both moral and monetary incentives.  This had taken place last July, but nothing had happened yet on monetary incentives. 

Another said that bureaucratic procedures get in the way of the incentives.  He said he understood the financial difficulties of the country, but there need to be incentives.  He gave as an example of what was needed, being able to take his children on a holiday.  A common theme was that incentives have to be addressed if the country is to keep teachers in the profession.  Unsaid was the reality that many teachers, particularly those who speak English, had abandoned teaching for work in the tourist industry because one might earn in a day what one would get for a month of teaching.

The term “emulation” was used a number of times in the discussion of incentives.  When I asked our translator what that meant, he explained that it is “friendly competition among workers and departments for which they get incentives.”   However, the incentives are usually in recognition, not material.

After more than two hours and some thirty speakers, the general secretary stopped recognizing more speakers.  He acknowledged hearing a lot of problems and said that it is the union’s work to attack these issues.

Lots of criticism was expressed by delegates, but framed within the values and ideals of the revolution.  The Cuban system has been very centralized and one of the themes both from the floor and the podium was a call for more activity at the local level.  Much of the external media reporting of the leadership of Raul Castro indicates a less central direction of the economy and society, a message that was heard at this Congress of the SNTECD.

Many of the issues raised at the Congress could be on the agenda of most any teacher union meeting in Canada—concerns about pay, image of the profession, collective agreements not being followed by administrators, attracting and retaining teachers.

However, there are two exceptions.  We seldom talk explicitly about the role of teachers in maintaining the existing social/political system.  Helping to maintain the existing system is a result of much that we do in classrooms and schools, but unconsciously and without speaking about it explicitly.  Cuban teachers, in contrast, are very aware of and explicit about the significant role that education is expected to play and in fact plays in maintaining the Cuban social/political system.

Another difference is that not once did the issue of class size get raised from the floor.  It is an issue in all our meetings.  Amongst the Cubans, the only mention came from the initial comments of the secretary general when he gave the report on developments since the last Congress.   Maximum class sizes had been set at 20, as mentioned above.  No wonder it isn’t an issue in Cuba.

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