Cuban entrepreneurs quietly build network of private schools
Despite ideological and legal hurdles, Cuba’s blooming entrepreneurial
system has quietly created something that looks very much like a private
education sector over the last half decade
By Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press
HAVANA (AP) — “This is a conversation between two children,” Graciela
Lage Delgado tells a rapt class of third-graders, tightly enunciating
each English word from a textbook called “Welcome to America.”
“Is it a TV?” Lage asks in a girl’s voice, pointing to an illustration
of a boxy silver robot.
“No, it’s not!” the kids shout back in English. “It’s a robot!”
The kids in Lage’s class wear sweat shirts and jeans, not the neat
maroon uniforms of Cuba’s public schools. Their classroom has an air
conditioner and a computer with speakers for watching videos,
unimaginable in a state school. And unlike most Cubans their age, the
children can hold simple conversations in English, thanks to
fast-moving, profound change in an important pillar of Cuba’s
six-decade-old socialist system.
Cuba touts its free, public kindergarten-to-post-grad schools as one of
the jewels of its revolution, a force for social equality that virtually
wiped out illiteracy across the island and gave even the poorest
citizens a shot at educations often superior to wealthier countries’. As
the government has allowed an explosion of private businesses ranging
from restaurants to car washes, the school system, like health care, has
remained under state control. Private schools remain illegal except for
children of diplomats and foreign business people. Even the Catholic
Church cannot open parochial schools.
Yet against the odds, Cuba’s blooming entrepreneurial system has quietly
created something that looks much like a private education sector, with
thousands of students across Cuba enrolled in dozens of afterschool and
weekend foreign language and art schools. The schools are entirely legal
because they function as cooperatives of licensed private language
teachers, one of the hundreds of new categories of self-employment
authorized under Cuba’s economic reforms.
For upper- and middle-class parents, the schools are filling gaps in
subjects such as English, dance, painting, music and theater —
invaluable in a country where artists and tourism industry workers can
feed their families far more easily than the average state employee.
English is also vital for Cubans migrating to the United States, their
numbers nearly doubled since the two countries declared detente in late
The economic reforms of the last five years have created a large class
of private entrepreneurs with lifestyles most Cubans can only dream of.
That class has been flooded with cash from a 17 percent surge in the
number of tourist visits and a wave of private investment from Cuban
emigres launched after detente was announced.
The special schools mean the children of the privileged are increasingly
getting a leg up, threatening to root inequality deeper and more broadly
in a society where it isn’t supposed to exist at all.
“It’s just splintering the collective identity, stratifying society
more and making the gap between the haves and have-nots great,” said
educational anthropologist Denise F. Blum, author of a 2011 study of
Cuban education titled “Cuban Youth and Revolutionary Values: Educating
the New Socialist Citizen.”
“I think it’s changing what socialism means for Cuba,” Blum said.
President Barack Obama travels to Cuba this month to push for such
changes — a loosening of state control that allows a middle class to
develop independently from the single-party government and the centrally
planned economy it controls.
“The diversification of the economy is ultimately a source of a change
for the Cuban people because they have more control over their own
lives,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, one of the
architects of Obama’s new policy, told The Associated Press.
Parents with the means are spending about 250 Cuban pesos ($10) a month,
around half the average state worker’s salary, to give their children
early advantages in English and the arts. Math and science are also
taught privately, in less formal settings that more closely resemble
group private tutoring.
“It’s a sacrifice for every Cuban but we try to do it for them, for
their future, so that they can get ahead in life,” said Doralkis Vinas,
a homemaker whose husband works in a private automobile body shop.
Their son Julito takes English at the Cuban School of Foreign Languages,
which opened five years ago and now has four branches in Havana and two
opening in western Pinar del Rio province.
The network, known by its Spanish acronym ECLEX, has hired a staff of
moonlighting or retired public school teachers like Lage, who retired
from the University of Havana last year after 37 years teaching English.
The project has about 800 students across Cuba, said Yureibys Perez
Blanco, the school’s director-general, making it among the biggest of
about 30 private English institutions in Havana. Besides elementary
English, it is starting to offer specialized courses for law,
accounting, management, medical English and tourism, she said.
She said there’s a need for better English instruction for children in
public schools, where there often aren’t enough qualified teachers to
give weekly English classes. To help, each of the ECLEX branches adopts
a needy school nearby and sends a teacher there to teach the weekly
English lesson to the class that needs it most.
“We don’t have divisions in social classes here but we know that people
have different purchasing power,” she said. “We have students here whose
parents have families overseas that help them financially a lot. We have
students whose parents live off their government salaries and save 250
pesos for English school so their kids can be better prepared.”
Private education has also transformed arts education. The country’s
elite government arts schools have three sets of competitive entrance
exams: for elementary school, high-school and the prestigious Superior
Institute of Arts university. Cuba prides itself on its achievements in
the arts and its musicians, dancers, actors and fine artists have long
been allowed to perform and sell their works outside the country. Many
have become wealthy by Cuban standards, making an arts career a path to
prestige and profit on the island.
“In our workshops, we realize that 95 percent of families come here with
the idea that artists are famous, artists travel outside the country,”
said Angel Escobedo, head of a private Havana arts workshop called
Entreartes. He said he has about 40 students aged 3 to 21 taking classes
in dance, theater, music and fine arts like sculpture.
“They want to prepare themselves for the art schools with the objective
of being famous, traveling,” he said. “We’re the specialists in
preparing themselves for the entrance exams.”
Relatively affluent Cubans say preparing their children for career
success is just part of the reason they’re sacrificing to pay for
private education. Many say it’s just as important to raise well-rounded
children in a society that has long valued arts and language skills as
the measures of an educated person.
“The singing teacher says she’s the finest student he has,” said
Ireinaldo Hernandez, an airport catering services worker who sends his
9-year-old daughter Erika to Entreartes. “The dance professor says she’s
the one with the most flexibility. The sculpture teacher says she’s
coming along well. Until now we haven’t been able to define the path for
her to follow so she’s in everything. Besides helping us decide, it’s
all preparation for her life, for her future.”
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: twitter.com/mweissenstein
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