By Karen Andrews (she/her), teacher, Terrace
Since the mid-1990s, the BCTF has had a long-standing solidarity partnership to support the work of Cuban teachers through a union-to-union relationship with the National Education, Science, and Sport Workers’ Union (SNTECD). As a member of the BCTF’s International Solidarity Committee, I wanted to learn more about this relationship and the commonalities we share as educators.
I recently had the honour of interviewing Professor Isora Enriquez O’Farrill of the Enrique José Varona University of Pedagogical Sciences (EJVUPS) in Cuba. Professor Enriquez O’Farrill was asked on behalf of her union, SNTECD, to virtually meet with me and answer some of my questions.
I began the interview by asking Professor Enriquez O’Farrill to briefly tell me about the impacts of the United States’ embargo against Cuba. Despite the United Nations General Assembly’s call for an end to the embargo, it has been in place for over 60 years, making it the longest lasting economic sanction in history. Although there is no physical military blockade, Cubans see the embargo as such because the United States threatens other non-American companies away from doing business with Cuba. The effects of the decades- long embargo are wide sweeping and affect education. School supplies such as paper, textbooks, musical instruments, as well as sports and lab equipment, are very limited. Computers and tablets are older, making them difficult to upgrade. Students with diverse needs often lack the resources they need, such as wheelchairs, braille equipment, and other communication devices. However, Professor Enriquez O’Farrill explained that Cubans are very innovative and creative. For example, students are asked to bring back their materials so that they can be recycled from one year to the next. There is always a way to repair a broken piece of equipment or find an alternative. She told me that Cubans see these as “challenges to overcome rather than problems that cannot be resolved.”
Despite my reluctance to delve into the topic of COVID-19, because I wish that I could put the pandemic behind me, I was curious to know what the situation has been like for Cuban teachers, students, and their communities. Because of the embargo, medication and medical supplies (including PPE) have been difficult to source. However, Professor Enriquez O’Farrill told me that Cubans are very industrious people. In fact, they developed their own COVID-19 vaccine, which students needed to return to in-class learning. During the height of the pandemic, SNTECD supported teachers in helping health care professionals. Some schools were even turned into hospitals. Teachers and their students were also very active in their communities, doing things like helping the elderly by bringing them groceries.
When schools closed, some teachers pivoted to being a “TV teacher,” broadcasting their lessons on the National Cuban Educational Television network. Other teachers had their lessons broadcast on national radio, while others turned to online teaching, all of which required teachers to quickly adapt to the situation and learn new teaching strategies. Professor Enriquez O’Farrill was clear that, despite these challenges, this was a time that strengthened family relations and that parents gained a new respect for teachers. She felt honoured that the Cuban government formally recognized teachers’ efforts by issuing certificates of appreciation.
When I inquired about Cuba’s recent proclamation of LGBTQ+ History Month, becoming the first Latin American country to do so, Professor Enriquez O’Farrill shared with me that LGBTQ+ rights are enshrined in the Cuban constitution. However, even with governmental support for inclusivity and respect of rights for all, she explained, it will take time to shift Cuban culture as the LGBTQ+ community has traditionally endured discrimination. Professor Enriquez O’Farrill believes that education has a responsibility to enhance inclusion and that teachers would benefit from professional development in this area.
I recently found out that Cuba is one of the few countries in the world to acknowledge climate change threats in its constitution. Professor Enriquez O’Farrill told me about the effects of climate change in her country, including coastline erosion, ocean pollution, and flooding due to intense hurricanes. In school, environmental education is interwoven across the curriculum. In addition, the ministry of education has developed strategies to support the teaching of environmental education. Students participate in projects to protect the coast and the sea, including shoreline clean-up, planting trees, and recycling. These efforts are part of Cuba’s 100-year plan called Tarea Vida (Project Life), guidelines to dealing with the effects of climate change.
When I inquired about Cuba’s inter-national solidarity work, Professor Enriquez O’Farrill told me, “Cubans share the little things that we have; we’re open to share.” She explained about Cuba’s international medical program, bringing health care providers to Cuba for training and sending medical personnel to developing parts of the world. Other acts of solidarity include the creation of an international literacy campaign Yo Sí Puedo (Yes I Can) in which Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in other countries including Haiti and Mozambique.
Professor Enriquez O’Farrill has been involved with international solidarity projects, including language learning projects with the BCTF, dating back almost 20 years. She is currently the lead organizer for the BCTF-Cuba Language Learning Project. Through the EJVUPS, the project entails a three-year virtual exchange between teachers in Cuba and a team of BCTF teachers. The participating teachers and their students will create short language videos based on themes of common interest. The final videos will be used as professional development for teachers in Cuba.
As I was wrapping up the interview and thanking Professor Enriquez O’Farrill for her time, my head was spinning. She left me with so many more questions and ideas for future solidarity projects in which the BCTF and SNTECD could collaborate. I am satisfied in knowing that professional development opportunities and learning will continue, not only for me, but also my BCTF and SNTECD colleagues.
Thank you to Deanna Fasciani, Executive Director, CoDev Canada, for her help with this interview.