Study-as-work program widens access to education
Cutback, Restructuring of Sugar Industry:
Cuban workers explain how it affects them
[Second of two articles. Click here for first.]
SANTA CRUZ DEL NORTE, Cuba—“Before the revolution we had to pay to go to school,” said Misael Fonseca. And few workers could afford the time or fees. “Now we’re being paid to study.”
Fonseca had been one of the 1,750 workers at the Camilo Cienfuegos sugar production complex, 30 miles east of Havana, before the mill was closed in 2002. In the background you could hear the sounds of metal on metal as a crew of mill workers dismantled the old factory, salvaging everything that could be reused. Fonseca and more than 600 other workers formerly employed in the sugar complex were seated in classrooms of the school they had established on the grounds. Some were studying for their ninth-grade equivalency degrees, others taking pre-university or technical retraining courses.
“For us, the study-as-work program is an opportunity to improve ourselves,” said Lourdes Beltrán, another worker who was completing a one-year pre-university course at what they call the Camilo Cienfuegos School for Further Education.
Since April 2002 a radical cutback and reorganization of the sugar industry have been under way in Cuba. How these far-reaching changes are being implemented provides a vivid illustration of a socialist revolution tackling challenges before it. It demonstrates what becomes possible as workers and farmers take political and economic power out of the hands of the capitalist rulers, reorganize social priorities to meet their needs, open new avenues of culture, and defend their conquests arms in hand.
Education and training
“Today will surely go down in history,” Cuban president Fidel Castro told more than 10,000 sugar workers and their families gathered in Artemisa on Oct. 21, 2002. “The concept of creating employment—and certainly one of the most important kinds of employment—out of studying is being put into practice for the first time.”
Some 100,000 sugar workers whose jobs have been eliminated continue to receive their wages as they become full- or part-time students to further their education and train for new jobs.
Cuba has a population of 11 million, and sugar is produced in every province but one. Prior to April 2002 “the industry employed some 420,000 workers and indirectly involved another 1.5 million,” Miguel Toledo, a member of the national secretariat of the National Union of Sugar Workers (SNTA), told the Militant. “So the restructuring has affected the entire country.”
In February 2003 a team of Militant reporters spent several days talking about these developments with Pedro Ross, general secretary of the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), SNTA general secretary Manuel Cordero, and other leaders of Cuba’s trade unions and sugar industry. The CTC also responded positively to our request to visit a mill complex to talk with workers and hear firsthand what those most affected by the reorganization think about the changes they are carrying out.
An article in last week’s Militant described the historical roots of sugarcane cultivation; the scope and initial repercussions of the reorganization of Cuba’s largest agro-industry; and the revolutionary implications of the radical restructuring being explained and organized by Cuba’s communist leadership. (See “Radical reorganization and cutback of Cuba’s sugar industry” in the Feb. 9, 2004, issue of the Militant.)
Sugar has long been the backbone of the Cuban economy, Ross explained. But most of Cuba’s mills are obsolete, and production costs are high compared to other sugar-exporting countries. At the opening of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union and countries in Eastern Europe defaulted on long-term contracts to buy sugar, Cuba was suddenly faced with selling its sugar at world market prices. Those prices, moreover, then fell by one-half over the course of the decade. At the same time, Washington continued stepping up its economic warfare against the country. These factors and others led to the decision by the revolutionary government to begin a major economic restructuring and address the need to further diversify the country’s agriculture and industry.
Working closely with trade unions and other mass organizations, the Cuban government has been implementing a plan to close 70 of the island’s 155 sugar mills, cut the number of workers involved in sugar production by more than 25 percent, reclaim for other agricultural uses nearly two-thirds of the land previously allotted to cane cultivation, and expand the country’s educational system to incorporate tens of thousands of sugar workers now continuing their studies on all levels.
The goal of this transformation is to concentrate resources in the most efficient mills and on the best land for the cultivation of sugarcane in order to cut the average cost of producing sugar from some 20 cents a pound to 4 cents a pound—that is, below the long-term average price the crop brings on the world market. The target is to produce an average of 4 million tons of raw sugar a year to meet domestic consumption needs and delivery on international contracts.
“In carrying out this reorganization, which involves substantial cutbacks in the number of workers employed in the sugar industry, we proceeded from two principles,” CTC leader Ross told the Militant. “First, that no worker would be abandoned, left to fend for themselves.
“And second, that the workers and communities affected by the reorganization would come out of the process better off, discovering they had benefited from it.”
In his October 2002 speech in the town of Artemisa, in Havana province, inaugurating the Sugar Workers Further Education Courses, Castro reported that 84,000 sugar workers had already taken up the opportunity to go back to school. The courses are open both to workers whose jobs have been eliminated and those still working. Within a matter of months, some 122,000 had signed up to broaden their education.
No age limit for classes
Depending on age and level of schooling completed, each worker-student is assigned to one of six different courses: classes up to sixth grade; seventh to ninth grades; tenth to twelfth grades; pre-university classes; technical courses; and post-graduate technical programs.
“Anyone can take these courses. There is no age limit,” Misael Fonseca said.
At the Camilo Cienfuegos school there were about 100 workers between the ages of 16 and 19 who had completed the ninth grade, and another 120 who had completed twelfth grade. The bulk of the students were 30-45 years old.
Those who now complete pre-university courses and want to continue are guaranteed admission to one of the new universities being established in every municipality in the country. Or they can go to a university further afield.
Castro told the gathering in Artemisa that “each sugar mill will become a university center…. Any town that has a junior high school or a vocational school, I repeat, can become a university center. Now that is really something unusual in this world, is it not?”
Our goal, Castro said, “which might seem to be a dream, is to be the best educated country in the world, in the broadest sense of the word; a country with a general, all-around education, which includes not only professional skills but also knowledge about science, arts, and the humanities.”
Retirees can join one of the newly created Universities for the Older Adult, an initiative taken by the CTC-led Movement of Pensioners and Retired Workers.
“Our school offers courses to acquire skills that will prepare students for any new job they might want to pursue as well as studies in other subjects that the students may be interested in, such as English, geography, and mathematics,” said Mario Víctor Rodríguez, one of the school directors.
The school has 52 teachers, he told the Militant. Some, like Rodríguez, had been teachers in the local school system. Others were former employees of the sugar complex who had trained to become teachers. “I worked for four years at the mill packaging sugar and as a guard,” said Marlene Cordero. “Now I teach computer courses here.”
Before the courses began, the students themselves fixed up what became the classrooms. They took over the newly vacated quarters of the Youth Army of Labor (Ejercito Juvenil de Trabajo, or EJT), the special production units of the Revolutionary Armed Forces that had previously cultivated the state farm lands belonging to the Camilo Cienfuegos complex. The sugar workers painted walls and upgraded the library. They made desks out of bagasse, a fiberwood-like by-product of sugarcane produced in one of the factories that is part of the sugar complex. Several commented with pride on the work they had done to make the school their own.
Going back to school
“At first some of us were a little scared about going back to school. We thought it would be difficult to learn to concentrate, to become students again,” said Alberto Alfonso. “But it hasn’t turned out that way.”
Students spend four hours in class, either in the morning or in the afternoon, a schedule that allows some to work part-time. “As students, we continue to receive the same salary we got as sugar workers—even if we are also working and getting paid for another job,” Alfonso said. “And our teachers are very good.”
Joaquín Almaguer said he went to school in the mornings and worked as an electrician for six or seven hours afterwards. He was studying to become a technician.
“We’re already seeing results from the classes,” said Diosdado Fonseca, head of adult education for Santa Cruz del Norte. “We’re different from what we were four months ago. It’s difficult to measure it, but you can feel the cultural broadening. It spreads to every home. You can even hear people talking about science, geography, and mathematics in family living rooms.”
The geography teacher at the school, Luis Brizuela, said he was nine years old at the time of the revolutionary victory over the Batista dictatorship in January 1959. “I come from a peasant family in Manzanillo, in eastern Cuba,” he explained. “Before the revolution, the school I went to cost 25 centavos a week, and you also had to buy your books! After the victory I received a scholarship to study and became an engineer. Now I’m teaching workers who are actually getting paid to study,” he said, with evident appreciation of the contrast.
The sugar complex in Santa Cruz del Norte was originally owned by the Hershey family—the owners of the Hershey chocolate empire—and was subsequently sold to Cuban sugar multimillionaire Julio Lobo, who at one time owned 14 mills in Cuba.
During the revolutionary struggle against the Batista tyranny, “the July 26 Movement had a strong base among workers at this mill,” said Guillermo Santiago González, as the workers showed us around the house and gardens of the former owners, now used by the workers for social events. He was a 17-year-old “office boy” at the mill when the revolutionary government took power. In 1960, as the revolution deepened, the complex was “intervened”—taken over—by the sugar workers and then soon expropriated by the state along with the rest of the industry.
For years, the Camilo Cienfuegos mill was at the cutting edge of high-quality sugar refining in Cuba. But its increasingly costly technology—using carbon filters produced from animal bone imported from the United Kingdom, the only mill in Cuba to do so—made it a prime candidate for closure following the April 2002 decision to sharply cut back sugar production. The mill had been deteriorating over the last decade as shortages of spare parts, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, and other inputs became more and more acute in the wake of the abrupt cutoff of favorable long-term trade agreements with the former Soviet bloc. The mill lost more than 10 million pesos each harvest.
“We really fought to convince the national commission charged with making the final decision that we could turn this situation around, and that the Camilo Cienfuegos complex should remain in production,” said Eduardo González, director of human resources at the plant. “But in the end, we agreed that shutting the mill was the right thing to do,” he said.
Now, much of the land previously allotted to growing sugarcane is being used to expand the cultivation of vegetables and raise cattle.
Once the decision was made, the government, the union, and other mass organizations began working together in early 2002 to carry out eight months of meetings involving every single sugar worker to discuss the reorganization and its implications.
Workers discuss restructuring
A “Programmatic Document” prepared by the union and Sugar Ministry served to initiate the discussion. It carefully explained the reasons why the cutback in sugar production was necessary.
“From the first assembly meeting in the complex, workers accepted that, given the economic reality, not only here but in the national economy, the shutdown was necessary,” said González. “What concerned everyone most was their futures—their wages, their jobs, their homes. There are many families whose members have worked at the sugar complex for generations.”
Five rounds of workers’ assemblies were organized to discuss the closure of the mill as part of the broader restructuring of the sugar industry, Toledo said. The SNTA organized three of these meetings to address the immediate concerns of the workers directly employed in the industry and of their families.
The fourth round was convened in collaboration with the Committees in Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to discuss how the restructuring would affect the bateyes, the communities adjacent to the sugar production complexes where many of the workers live. The CDRs are a nationwide mass organization that involves residents of each municipality, organized block by block to help families deal with major social changes like this, as well as other community needs.
Thirteen provisional commissions and 155 commissions were established in agro-industrial complexes across the country. At the Camilo Cienfuegos mill, as at each of the 70 mills that closed, a commission was established to help each worker decide what they would do next. The commissions, whose composition was approved by the workers, were made up of a representative of the management and three representatives of the union.
“After the first assemblies were held, members of the commission met individually with every single one of the 1,750 workers to discuss proposals for their new work and/or study. If a worker was sick or injured, we went to their home to talk with them. We listened and talked with each worker two, three, even six times—as many times as necessary until each worker’s questions and worries had been addressed, and a decision reached,” González said.
“The workers assemblies weren’t convened just to win acceptance of an already determined set of proposals,” Toledo said. There was a back-and-forth between the assemblies, the union, and the government-established commissions in each complex, province, and on the national level. They all worked to reach conclusions that would be in the interests of the workers directly concerned and of the country, he said.
The fruitfulness of devoting the time and attention necessary to working with each individual to come to a satisfactory decision was registered by one single fact, sugar workers union president Manuel Cordero told the Militant. Every worker had the right to appeal to the union leadership nationally if not satisfied with the decision finally reached concerning his or her future course of study and work. Out of more than 100,000 workers whose jobs were eliminated, only five appealed to the national union asking that their cases be reviewed.
Guaranteed full wages
All former sugar workers have been given a lifetime guarantee by the government that they will continue to receive no less than the wage they were earning as a sugar worker, whether they go to school, take a new job, or do both. Each also remains a member of the National Sugar Workers Union, regardless of their current job.
How to set these continuing wage rates was one decision that came out of the workplace assembly discussions, Toledo explained to the Militant. In addition to a basic monthly wage, sugar workers receive production bonuses, which are generally higher during the harvest months, Toledo said. “The proposal adopted is that—during every month of the year— workers will continue to receive not only their basic wage but also the average bonus they got during the months of the last harvest. Thus, they are in fact receiving a little more than 100 percent of their previous income.”
At the Camilo Cienfuegos complex, out of the 1,756 workers affected by the closure, just under 600 chose study-as-work. “Another 414 chose jobs rearing cattle or expanding the cultivation of vegetables on the reorganized state farm at the former sugar complex,” González reported, “while 368 chose work in other sugar enterprises; 326 decided to take service jobs in the new agricultural enterprise; 26 chose early retirement; and 31 took other jobs in the local area.”
A similar process took place in every complex across the island. A total of 7,850 assemblies involving more than 900,000 workers were organized nationally. And discussion on this question has taken place widely among working people in Cuba. Workers at the Antonio Maceo suit factory in Havana, for example, which Militant reporters also visited, said that the union at the plant had organized an assembly to discuss the sugar industry reorganization.
Similar discussions were organized by the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) in the cooperatives and with individual farmers.
Part of Battle of Ideas
The study-as-work program for sugar workers has become part of a broader effort by the revolutionary government to strengthen the proletarian course of the revolution and the class composition of the universities through widening access to education and culture for the entire population. This is an aspect of what is known in Cuba as the Battle of Ideas.
The Battle of Ideas was initiated several years ago, organized and led by the Union of Young Communists (UJC), as a political counteroffensive to the imperialist ideological drive and the pro-capitalist values it promotes, values reinforced by the increased circulation of the dollar and other retreats the revolutionary government has had to organize over the past decade in response to the deep economic crisis faced at the opening of the 1990s. The Battle of Ideas includes dozens of educational and jobs programs, the heart of which is the offer of an opportunity for university study and a productive future to tens of thousands of youth who had dropped out of school and had no jobs perspective.
“A source of employment has been created, employment of all kinds…for many young people who had had no future,” Castro explained to the sugar workers gathering in Artemisa. “All these plans that are being made for tens of thousands of young people mean employment at a relatively early age, knowledge, dignity, self-esteem and the chance to widen their future prospects.”
Accelerated courses for training elementary school teachers and art instructors have been launched along with four schools for training thousands of young, revolutionary social workers. University access has been opened to them.
The number of students in each classroom, from elementary school on up, has been almost cut in half—from an average of 37 per classroom in Havana’s elementary schools a couple of years ago to one of less than 20 today.
The University for All, a nationally televised daily program, offers courses for people of all ages and occupations, responding to a wide variety of interests, from languages to history to music.
TV sets and VCRs have been introduced into virtually every classroom across the island, including the most remote rural areas, some with only one or two students, which have been equipped with solar panels to provide electricity. Computer centers have been established in every municipality, and computers are being introduced into more and more schools.
A publishing effort is under way to make available inexpensive editions of the best of world and Cuban literature. Under the banner of the oft-cited slogan, “The revolution doesn’t tell people to believe. It tells them—read!” the annual international book fair, formerly limited to Havana, has been extended to cities throughout the island.
“The Battle of Ideas has made possible the advance we call ‘study as work,’ which is at the heart of the possibilities open to workers whose jobs are eliminated as a result of the sugar industry’s reorganization,” Tirso Sáenz, president of the National Association of Sugar Technicians, told the Militant in an interview at the Sugar Ministry in Havana. Without the Battle of Ideas, he noted, “we couldn’t have begun the cutbacks and restructuring so badly needed.”
In a speech given in February 2003 to an international conference of teachers in Havana, Castro said, “Since education is the instrument par excellence in the search for equality, well-being, and social justice, you can better understand why I describe what is taking place today in the search for higher objectives in Cuban education as a profound revolution.
“The very material future of our people is to be based on knowledge and culture,” Castro said.
“In the midst of a colossal world economic crisis, our country is advancing on a number of fronts…. Possibly the boldest decision recently adopted has been that of turning study into a form of employment, a principle that made it possible to close down 70 sugar mills—the least efficient ones—whose hard-currency costs were higher than the income they generated.”
“Some proclaimed that the end had come for the ideas of socialism,” Castro noted to the workers in Artemisa. Yet here they will find a country that is “doing things that countries living under the capitalist system could never even dream of doing.”
At the Camilo Cienfuegos school, sugar worker Jesús Abreu, who is now taking computer classes, concluded: “We study guided by the words of our national hero, José Martí: ‘to be educated is to be free.’”