THE PENCIL PROMISE just returned from an exciting cultural emersion and philanthropic journey to the exotic, and until recently forbidden world of Cuba.
The most important part of this incredible journey was our visit to the Angela Landa Primary School in central Havana. Visits from Americans are rare and exciting for these children; we were greeted with outstretched arms and open hearts. Cuba, with the highest literacy rate of any Latin nation, sets a fantastic example of prioritizing education for its citizens. This mystery-shrouded part of the world is a place everyone dreams of visiting, and to do so while having the opportunity to make s difference in the lives of these children was amazing.
At the Angela Landa Primary School we were greeted by the principal, Professor Sonia Garcia, and she graciously lead us on a tour of the school. We gained insight as to how the educational system in Cuba works. Cuba has prioritized its educational system making literacy mandatory for all, and higher education highly respected. Irrespective of your class, your income or where you live, education at every level is free. School meals and uniforms are free. But school supplies are not free, and can be very expensive and very scarce.
That is why Ace of Good is here. We had the pleasure of giving school supplies to these wonderful kids to help support their pursuit of an education. They were charming and delightful, and we enjoyed a cultural exchange with these students as they practice their English with us.
We asked how Cuba has achieved such an impressive literacy rate of 99.5%. (The literacy rates in the US and other first world countries are far lower.) This is seen by Cubans as one of Fidel Castro’s greatest achievements. When he took power in 1960 he froze the education system and put all students 13 to 18 years old through a teachers training course and then dispatched them to families all over Cuba as a private teacher. The students were charged with educating each member of their assigned family whether they were 5 years old or 95 years old. Castro created a huge propaganda campaign to enthuse the country towards this goal. Many wealthy teens were sent from their lavish homes in Havana to live and work with farmer’s families in remote mountain towns or seaside villages, leaving their families for a year and doing chores by day and teaching reading and writing by night.
The program was a huge success and according to Mira, the Cuban representative from the Department of education that Ace of Good met with, the country went from 20% literacy to 99.5% literacy in one year.
We asked about the television in every classroom at Angela Landa School. This is a very important aspect of the Cuban education system. Every classroom across Cuba has a TV we are told, and this is how each classroom is delivered each lesson each day. In fact every fourth grade class, for example, views the same lesson at the same time across Cuba. The education system is that regulated. This assures that every student is learning the same thing in the same way at the same time- and that no child has an advantage or disadvantage because they have a better or worse teacher.
Mira also talked proudly about the access to higher education that is available to all and completely free. However the success of this higher education program she confides, has frustrated many scholars. For example, Cuban PHD’s in the sciences want to meet with others from other nations studying the same things. They want to go to conferences around the world and collaborate with scientists that are at the leading edge of their field. The frustration for these Cuban PHD’s is that they can not leave Cuba. They have limited access to internet (Only 5% of Cubans have access to the internet) and limited communication with others in other countries. There are also no jobs in Cuba for these scientists. This creates dissent in the scientific community. She tells us that there is a new push by Raoul Castro to direct students away from intellectual studies and into farming, by offering them a small piece of land in the interior of Cuba if they study agriculture. The strategy is to redirect students from intellectual pursuits that will make them want to leave Cuba and focus them on practical studies that will make them want to stay because they now own land there. The frustration of the intellectual community in Cuba was palpable and we also saw this theme repeated in much of the art in Cuba.
We arrived in Havana during one of the most anticipated events in the contemporary art world: the 2012 International Havana Art Biennial. This is a wonderful opportunity to further understand the culture of Cuba and its people. Art curators and museum directors led us through Old Havana, where the entire capital became an expansive gallery of exhibitions, installations and performances. Every venue in this historic UNESCO city hosted an array of artistic events from massive installations on the Malecon (the great sea wall surrounding Havana) to the ancient prison cells at the armory being used as individual galleries.
The energy and level and sophistication of the Cuban contemporary art world was so impressive. The major theme was a sense of the artists wanting to have the opportunity to explore the world, to leave Cuba. There was a huge installation on the Malecon of a 25ft tall by 40 ft wide chain link fence with a huge silhouette of a plane taking off cut out of the middle. The curator of this work said it was meant to represent the shared dream of being able to take off from Cuba but being trapped here in a spider’s web of sorts. Very powerful, and frankly we were surprised that the art we saw was so uncensored.
We were also so fortunate to be invited to private receptions with five highly renowned Cuban artists at their studios and homes. Each artist has transformed their home into a living breathing work of art. From the artist Lazaro, a street artist who started an art school for poor children on the sidewalk outside his studio who’s fantastical animal sculptures are created solely from found objects from a nearby dumpster, to Fiora Fong, a painter and professor who is credited with founding the contemporary art movement in Cuba, we enjoyed unprecedented access to the the full width and breadth of the Cuban art scene.
In addition, we had the opportunity to dine in Havana’s Paladares, restaurants in locals’ houses. It was quite an eye opening experience to see the locals homes and speak with them about their lives and dreams. The Cuban people are warm and welcoming and joyous. Despite poverty and underemployment, they share an optimism and joie de vivre that is infectious.
At first blush Havana looks like a beautiful European seaside city with massive boulevards and elaborate architecture, but frozen in time and left to decay for the last 50 years. We left Cuba with a far more intimate understanding of the people and their dreams and their hopes for their children.