The advance of universal literacy and increasingly advanced higher learning has been a fundamental plank of the Cuban system’s legitimacy since the early days of the revolution itself. The Great Literacy Campaign of 1960-61 was run by almost 100,000 volunteers and saw illiteracy levels drop from 42% to 4% in under a year.
Literacy rates now stand at effectively 100%, compared to just 79% in the United States.
According to World Bank figures, Cuba today spends more as a proportion of its GDP on education than almost any other country in the world. Between 2009-2013 it spent 12.9% compared to 6% in Britain and 5.4% in the US.
However, Cuba remains under a debilitating and illegal blockade imposed by the United States. This relic of the Cold War is maintained by US politicians for their own domestic political ends, with no pretence that this six decade attempt to starve Cuba into regime change has, or will ever, achieve its official aims.
Despite a national flair for improvisation, the blockade routinely denies ordinary Cubans access to basic educational equipment, as well as a great many other necessities.
That’s why the British National Education Union, in partnership with the Cuban education union SNTECD and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, have launched the Viva la Educación campaign to raise funds for school supplies for Cuban children.
The NEU has underwritten the cost of transportation of educational materials to Cuba and has reached out across the trade union movement for support raising funds to purchase the basic classroom equipment, such as pens, pencils and paper, that Cuban students lack as a consequence of the blockade.
The TUC is supporting the appeal, and encourages national unions, branches, and individual union members to donate to the campaign. The campaign site also has resources for trade unionists to promote the campaign, including a model motion for union branches.
Despite Cuba’s educational zeal, inclusion of children with acute special needs in particular requires access to specialised technology. Therefore, while the campaign will provide staple classroom items like stationery, sports equipment, and laptops, it will also supply advanced items like braille machines for teaching visually impaired children.
Further, the pandemic also took a toll on education in Cuba, as it did everywhere. But the Cuban educational system responded impressively: Teachers filmed lessons, which were broadcast on state television enabling children to study at home.
Cuban teachers, just like their UK counterparts, mobilised en masse to put education above all else, adapting to new technologies and ways of working quickly in order to avoid disrupting the education of an entire generation of children.
Active support from the SNTECD was crucial to the mobilisation efforts which allowed televised learning to be quickly implemented during the pandemic. The union also took an important role supporting Cuba’s vaccination rollout, resulting in the vast majority of the population being double vaccinated rapidly, saving many lives.
Cuban unions, like British unions, are representative of their memberships. However, unlike in the UK, where the professional expertise of the teaching profession is routinely ignored or opposed by government, SNTECD plays an important role in shaping their country’s education policy.
SNTECD, like all Cuban unions, enjoys significant rights and influence, guaranteed by representation in management and in government. However, they are legally independent and financially autonomous, funded by membership subscriptions. Strikes are not, and never have been, illegal – although they take place rarely in a system where collective negotiation is so meaningfully adhered to by all sides.
The voice of teachers, via their union, is therefore taken extremely seriously by government. The public service mentality of the union, shared by the NEU, is allowed to flourish in a climate where their experience is respected by policy makers, unlike here in the UK.
So, although UK unions are engaged in providing material solidarity to our Cuban counterparts, the exchange goes both ways. There is much that we in the UK can learn from their educational model.
That’s why SNTECD General Secretary, Niurka Maria Gonzalez Orbera, spoke as guest of honour at the NEU’s national conference in April this year. That’s also why the NEU regularly sends delegations of UK teachers to Cuba, to see first-hand what can be achieved with a genuinely collaborative relationship between government, educators, and wider society.
Through their joint solidarity work, the NEU and SNTECD are circumnavigating the barriers of geopolitical conflict to build bridges between teachers on the basis of their shared experience as teachers.
This relationship between educators in Britain and Cuba is productive and sincere, an example of trade union internationalism at its very best.
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