Thoughts on Cuban Education by Elvira Martín Sabina
Translated by Mariana Ortega Breña
Elvira Martín Sabina is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Havana, director of the
Center for Studies of the Improvement of Higher Education, and coordinator of the UNESCO
Chair on University Teaching and Management. Mariana Ortega Breña is a freelance translator
based in Canberra, Australia.
Cuba’s educational experience shows that underdeveloped countries can
indeed achieve levels of success that nurture human rights and their sustainable
development. An appraisal of this experience begins by citing the country’s
precarious economic situation, the result of colonial and neocolonial
domination, which was inevitably reflected in education in prerevolutionary
Cuba. According to the 1953 census and other sources, only 55.6 percent of
children between 6 and 14 years were attending primary school and only 16.5
percent of young people between 15 and 19 were enrolled at the secondary
level. Out of a population of 5.8 million people, more than 1 million were illiterate.
This was a particularly acute problem in the countryside, where illiteracy
reached 41.7 percent of the population over age 10 and was higher among
women. This does not include functional illiterates, which increased the rate
to more than 50 percent. These figures reflect the strikingly insufficient reach
of educational services and their quality at the time of the triumph of the
revolution in 1959. How has it been possible for Cuban education to be currently
among the most advanced in Latin America and the Caribbean?
My participation in educational programs and my research together lead me
to propose two essential answers to this question (Martín, 2000). The first is
the state’s unconditional commitment to the educational project, expressed in the
political will that it has demonstrated for the past five decades. An example is the
successful efforts to guarantee the financial resources necessary to avoid firing
teachers or closing schools during the harsh economic crisis of the 1990s. The
second is the widespread participation of the population in educational projects. In
Cuba education is seen not merely as a right but as a responsibility of the entire
population. These essential conditions have been complemented by an educational
policy that is always being improved, a process in which correct decisions
outweigh mistakes and one that is supported by scientific research and especially
the active involvement of teachers and professors.
Two examples of citizen participation in educational programs, one from
the beginning of the revolution and one that is current, are offered here. The
National Literacy Campaign implemented in 1961 allowed the elimination of
the social scourge of illiteracy; with the motto “The one who knows teaches
the one who doesn’t,” a social force of more than 280,000 people, including
students, teachers, manual laborers and other workers, and teachers volunteering
from other parts of Latin America, was organized and over 700,000
people learned to read and write. This notable success achieved recognition
by UNESCO. Many years later, in 2000, a process of decentralization of university
institutions allowed the establishment of higher-education services in
numerous areas and communities via what are called sedes universitarias or
university centers, the responsibility for which rests with the traditional educational
Today 7 percent of the Cuban population has a university-level education,
and the average level of education is ninth grade. The impact of the policy of
“universalization” of higher education is a substantial increase in university
enrollment, reaching a gross rate of 68 percent during the 2007–2008 academic
year (Ministerio de Educación Superior, 2007–2008). The rates reported for
other regions in 2005 (when Cuba had a rate of 61 percent) were 75 percent for
North America and Western Europe, 57 percent for Central and Eastern
Europe, 29 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean, 48 percent for Chile,
44 percent for Panama, 29 percent for Colombia, and 24 percent for Mexico
(UNESCO Institute for Statistics, quoted in Global University Network for
Innovation, 2008: 354, 355, 357). Some of the most important citizen commitments
to the universalization of higher education include the participation of
local professionals as university professors at the end of the regular working
day, the collaboration of local governments, the use of middle-school facilities
after classes are over, and the provision of human and material resources by
local businesses. The achievements of Cuban education have been validated
by, among others, two studies carried out by the Latin American Laboratory
for Assessment of the Quality of Education (UNESCO/LLECE, 2002) during
the 1998–2008 period.
I want to underscore the fact that the human right to education should cover
all levels and include higher education, since it is imperative in the contemporary
world that both men and women have access to the possibilities offered by
humanity’s achievements in order to avoid risks to their survival and to exercise
their rights as responsible citizens. Indeed, the 2008 Regional Conference on
Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC/UNESCO, 2008)
explicitly recognized that higher education is a human right and a public social
good and that states have a fundamental duty to guarantee it.
The Cuban teaching method called Yo sí puedo (Yes I Can) is an example of
the potential of the education sector, with achievements that have been realized
in 28 countries and 14 different languages and that in less than five years
has permitted teaching 3.5 million illiterate people to read and write. This
method has been recognized by UNESCO and other national and community
organizations. Another example is Cuba’s support, since 1959, for 50,000 students
from 129 different countries who have graduated from different levels
of education in Cuba. It is encouraging that 30,000 youth from 123 nations are
currently engaged in university studies in Cuba.
I would not trade the experiences that have enabled me to appreciate the
way the people of a country realize their right to education. Cuba’s successful
experiment with cooperation and integration in education allows us to assert
that lifelong education is indeed possible.
Global University Network for Innovation
2008 La educación superior en el mundo. Madrid, Barcelona, and Mexico City: Ediciones Mundi-
2000 “Algunas experiencias del sistema educacional cubano en la búsqueda de su pertinencia
y calidad.” Paper presented at Twenty-seventh Congress of the Latin American Studies
Ministerio de Educación Superior
2007–2008 Boletín estadístico curso académico 2007–08. Havana.
2008 “Declaración de la Conferencia Regional sobre Educación Superior en América Latina y
el Caribe 2008.” http://www.iesalc.org.
2002 Estudio cualitativo de escuelas con resultados destacables en siete países latinoamericanos.
Santiago de Chile.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 165, Vol. 36 No. 2, March 2009 135-137
© 2009 Latin American Perspectives