Cubans Say ‘Nyet’ to Russian, Hoping to Learn English
Looser U.S. restrictions cause scramble for lessons and new proficiency
requirement in language of longtime enemy; ‘We studied Russian,’ laments
By KEJAL VYAS
Nov. 20, 2015 1:31 p.m. ET
HAVANA—Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution defiantly jabs at former U.S.
President Ronald Reagan with a mural of a cartoon cowboy and sign
saying: “Thanks you cretin for h lped us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION.”
Missing letters and botched grammar are no surprise in a country that
for decades flouted U.S. culture, including the English language. Cuba
prioritized Russian as a second language in schools until the Soviet
But now that Havana and Washington are in a slow dance toward
normalizing relations, Cubans are scrambling to learn the language of
their longtime enemy.
Parents flocked to Steve Metzger, a massage therapist from Sacramento,
Calif., for private lessons during his volunteer trip last summer to
teach English to children here.
“There’s a lot of interest, and it’s mostly economic,” he says. During a
class trip to the zoo in July, Mr. Metzger wrote on a board the name of
each animal they saw and asked them to follow along as he slowly
pronounced “monkey,” “ostrich,” “zebra,” “antelope” and “chimpanzee.”
The Communist Party recently announced a new English proficiency
requirement for Cuban college students that will go into effect
gradually over the next couple of years. No English, no diploma.
“We have to resolve the problem that the Cuban professional isn’t able
to express himself in the universal language of our times,” Higher
Education Minister Rodolfo Alarcón said in comments published by state
newspaper Granma in September.
About a week earlier, top Communist Party official José Ramón Machado
told college students that English will be “indispensable” for future
The sudden rise of English shows how Cuba’s totalitarian regime is
preparing for the trade and sun-seeking tourists that the detente with
the U.S. could bring. “It’s taken them a long time to make the switch,
but it’s recognition…that English is the language of global commerce,”
says William M. LeoGrande, a government professor and Cuba expert at
For decades after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Russian had favored
status as Cuba solidified ideological ties with its ally 6,000 miles
away and sought to forge a cultural bond. Cuban radio aired
Russian-language programs. American classics like Betty Boop were
replaced by Soviet cartoon characters such as Cheburashka, a big-eared
tropical creature that winds up in Russia. He helped introduce Cubans to
the Cyrillic alphabet and snow.
Thousands of Cubans went to study in the old Soviet bloc. But the Soviet
collapse in 1991 left Cuba in economic tatters. Russian was dropped from
the official academic curriculum, and many Cuban citizens were left
knowing a foreign language they had little or no use for.
“I studied Russian for three years, and I remember none of it,” says
dissident activist Antonio Rodiles, who recalls his mandatory Russian
classes as a college physics student in the late 1980s.
When he got his master’s degree and taught mathematics at Florida State
University several years ago, Mr. Rodiles learned English and got access
to academic journals he had never seen. “You know that these things
exist, but when you have it in your hands it’s a true discovery,” he says.
Even Mr. Castro lamented the government’s decision to teach Russian.
“The Chinese studied English. The Russians studied English. Everybody
studied English minus us. We studied Russian,” he said in 2012.
Cuba’s history as a Cold War battleground can still be seen in the
eccentric names that some islanders go by. Yusnavy and Yusleidy,
Cuban-Spanish renditions of “U.S. Navy” and “U.S. lady,” are about as
common as the Russian first names Yuri and Katiuska.
Tourists down vodka between Soviet-era kitsch and Communist worker
propaganda posters at the bar Na Zdrovie!, which is Russian for “Cheers!”
“There’s a joke that the only place where the Soviet Union still exists
is in Cuba,” says Jacqueline Loss, a Spanish professor at the University
of Connecticut who has written extensively on Russian influence in Cuban
Now, though, there is a new port in Mariel, just outside the capital
city, where supporters are eager for the U.S. Congress to fully lift the
Cuban trade embargo. That isn’t likely to happen before President Barack
Obama leaves office. The resort town of Varadero has an 18-hole golf
course and marina with docking space for hundreds of yachts that are
more likely to go to or from St. Petersburg, Fla., than St. Petersburg,
Many Cubans see English as an advantage in getting service-related jobs
that looser restrictions with the U.S. could bring. More access to
tourists could mean more hard currency for Cubans, who earn an average
of $24 a month.
Analysts say the shift to English is also an attempt to retool Cuba’s
education system. The number of graduates from the state-run education
system is down 30% since 2008, according to government data, largely
because driving a cab for tourists is much more lucrative than being a
doctor or engineer.
“Increasingly, young Cubans see studies as a waste of time because you
don’t see your efforts leading to any wealth,” says Paul Webster Hare, a
former British ambassador in Havana who teaches international relations
at Boston University.
He remembers young Cubans who learned English from bootleg copies of
television shows such as “24” and Michael Moore movies that were passed
around on memory drives.
Mr. Alarcón, Cuba’s higher education minister, said in September that
classes and educational materials will be offered to meet the growing
demand for English. Many students may have to learn on their own time,
he said. Private classes cost anywhere from $20 a month to more than $100.
The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which reopened in August, is offering
training programs to English teachers on the island, according to the
embassy’s public affairs office.
Eliécer Ávila, a 30-year-old information technology engineer, can’t
start soon enough, he says. He still remembers attending a conference
abroad where people from all over the world spoke English, except for him.
“I was the only one who didn’t understand what’s going on because I’m
Cuban,” Mr. Avila says. “If you put up a school, I’ll be your first
Write to Kejal Vyas at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Cubans Say ‘Nyet’ to Russian, Hoping to Learn English – WSJ –