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Revolution in Education

Dollars vs. 'Battle of Ideas'

by Steve Eckardt

31 0ctober 2004

On October 25th Cuba announced it would be withdrawing the U.S. dollar as a medium of exchange in its economy. The move was in response to U.S. efforts to cut off Cuba's interchanges with foreign banks, including a $100 million fine of Switzerland's largest bank.

Cuba's ability to take this defensive economic step reflects the revolution's continuing strengthening since the early days of the collapse of "socialist bloc." Then, at the beginning of what was called the "Special Period," Cuba was compelled by the sudden and catastrophic loss of 85% of its imports to carry out a broad retreat –legalizing the dollar, opening joint ventures with foreign investors, turning towards tourism as a source of foreign exchange, and allowing small businesses to function far more broadly than before.

This retreat, which was explicitly characterized as such in the hundreds of thousands of meetings organized nationwide to discuss responding to the profound economic crisis, allowed the penetration of capitalism into Cuba on a scale unprecedented since the early days of the revolution. As expected, this brought some of capitalism's attendant evils such as corruption, growing inequality, and a certain level of prostitution in tourist areas.

Battle of Ideas
As the Cuban economy began recovering from the worst of the Special Period, it was swept by a vast popular movement against Washington's kidnapping of the Cuban child, Elián González. From the gains and momentum of that struggle, Cuba launched 'The Battle of Ideas" to begin pushing back at least the ideological encroachments that capitalism was making on the island.

In a talk to those attending the recent NNOC meeting in Washington, Jose Ramon Belaguer [Cuban Minister of Health and an historic figure in the Cuban revolution] explained that the Battle of Ideas and its accompanying programs dominate Cuban life today, and are transforming the island in a way not seen since the early days of the Revolution. Though poor in financial capital, Cuba is the world's richest nation in human capital, having the most teachers and doctors per capita, publishing the most books per capita, and having the smallest class sizes in the world.

Affirmative action
To win the Battle of Ideas, Cuba has deployed that willing human capital to fight for equality and maximize everyone's potential. There are some new 167 programs currently underway in the country. They include a vast expansion of schools for teachers, social workers, and sports and arts instructors.

Similarly, Cuban youth carried out a careful census to locate young people who have 'fallen through the cracks' (are neither in school or working), who were then offered stipends to return to school –especially social work school, so that after graduation they could return and work with people in the same position they were once in.

At the same time the census probed to identify existing students who faced special challenges, whether they be feelings of alienation in school or difficulties in home life –information which was then taken back to the teachers, the parents, the block club, the local Young Communist League and other community institutions to get a fresh start to overcome these children's problems.

The battle to lower class size to a maximum of 20 was won (and the struggle to make it 15 has begun). Likewise with the struggle to guarantee a VCR in every classroom, and computers in every school.

Removing barriers
But Cuban education is being radically transformed in quality, not just quantity. The stress is on tearing down the organizational walls that divided education into subjects, classes, and years. This includes ending the division between those who are in school and those who aren't. The perspective is that everyone in the country should be taking a class or otherwise learning at all times. Moves to accomplish this include major expansion of educational broadcasting [including the famous Open University of the Air], the daily Mesa Redondo (Round Table) political discussion, and the box of 25 of the world's most important classic books distributed to every household.

Likewise, within the schools themselves, a radical reorganization is underway to eliminate the old structured divisions of education, all now being swept away to clear the field for consciously knitting together the educational process in an integrated way –for instance, ending the usual secondary school practice of changing classes 8 times a day to go study separate subjects taught by teachers who teach only one subject. Instead, Cuba is using its new teachers' colleges to train teachers who can work in cooperative teams to teach all subjects, without students changing either classes or teachers.

Nor is the division of education into years being allowed to stand, as teachers now move with their students as they advance through the grades.

Central fact
These sweeping changes –and the radical reallocation of resources necessary to implement them—dominate life in Cuba today. They have also clearly been the primary preoccupation of Cuba's revolutionary leadership, one reflection of which is the fact that nearly half the major speeches by Fidel in the past several years concern education.

At the same time, Cubans –especially the youth—have seized the new opportunities offered them, taken them in hand, and made them their own. Tens of thousands are changing their lives as they pour into the new teachers', sports, arts, and social work schools, while hundreds of thousands of their new students grab the new vistas opened to them, learn new talents, and become different human beings.

Teachers, parents, and students in the U.S. can just begin to imagine what it would be like to have a sustained government-led campaign to halve class size, double the number of teachers, double the number of arts and sports instructors, triple the number of social workers, and affirmatively target action towards students and youth needing special attention.

And of course Cuba is doing this on the basis of already achieving some of the world's highest literacy rates and lowest infant mortality rates, along with its widespread and unequaled self-sacrificing internationalist political consciousness.

These accomplishments make it clear that the Cuban revolution is stronger today than it ever has been. On this basis, Cuba is now able to move seamlessly to counter Washington's latest harsh actions to economically strangle it, while dramatically lowering the dangers of allowing the dollar to function as a second currency within its borders.

from a mailing to the Philadelphia Cuba Solidarity Coalition

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