Executive Perspective

A Glimpse of '50s America Today in Cuba
By Daniel A. Domenech/School Administrator, August 2017

I am riding in a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, aqua blue, just like the first car I ever drove. I’m traveling along the Malecón, a sea wall that spans the Cuban coast in Havana just before the entry to Havana Harbor. It is teeming with lovers, teenagers and fishermen. The Chevy is a taxi that, along with hundreds of other ’50s-vintage American cars, is one of the most popular attractions in Cuba.

Much confusion exists about travel to Cuba nowadays. President Obama’s overtures to restore more civil relations with Cuba have been misinterpreted by many as the opening of the island to tourism. That would not be accurate. Relations have improved, but tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited by a nearly six-decade-long U.S. embargo. Individuals traveling to Cuba must do so as part of a sanctioned activity complying with the embargo. Last April, I led a delegation of superintendents and other administrators to Havana. We traveled as an education study mission and arranged for school visits and meetings with education officials.

This was my third visit to Cuba as part of an AASA delegation. My first visit happened 19 years ago when I was president of AASA. I returned four years ago with then-AASA President Amy Sichel, and this last trip was with AASA President Alton Frailey.

A National Priority
Much has changed in the four years between visits. The incursions into privatization are noticeable in two sectors: restaurants and taxis. The number of “paladares,” as Cubans refer to privately owned restaurants, has increased dramatically. A paladar previously had to operate in the home of the owner, but now a restauranteur can buy a location, remodel it and convert it for commercial dining. Undoubtedly, the best places to eat in Cuba are the paladares.

Similarly, the ’50s U.S.-made cars that grace the streets of Havana now have been converted to taxis by their owners. Tourists will pay the going rate for the opportunity to be photographed and ride in one of those cars.

The Cubans proudly declare that public education is a national priority. They support that by making education, from cradle to grave, free in Cuba. Programs are available for preschoolers as young as one year old and continue through university and graduate-level programs. Similarly, vocational programs are available to everyone at no charge. The state assumes the responsibility to provide for not just the educational needs of the children, but their social-emotional needs as well. We might describe Cuba as having the ultimate wrap-around program for students.

Nevertheless, the country is facing emerging challenges from a youth that does not seem as respectful of their elders or as civic-minded as previous generations. Recently this led President Raul Castro to criticize the education system and call for improvements.

The island’s economic development also is changing the education system. Once, Cuba was proud of the fact 60 percent of its students opted for the academic track and pursued a college degree while the remainder took vocational courses. With a growing private sector, there is an attempt to reverse the equation. The reality in today’s Cuba is that more money can be made in the private sector and the tourist industry than can be earned as a college professor or scientist.

Absent Technology
Our group was impressed by the many community centers staffed by volunteers who provide students with cultural and creative activities after school. Absent the technology that obsesses American students, Cuban students lack the smartphones and the prevalent social media that consumes our teenagers. Consequently, Cuban students spend their time on the graphic and performing arts. Music in Cuba is a way of life and visitors are treated to it in the streets, restaurants, hotels and schools.

Technology is lacking in Cuban schools. We know from previous visits that computers are rare and that classrooms lack the rich resources that U.S. classrooms enjoy. Regardless, Cuba boasts of having one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America and, at 99.8 percent, ranks ninth in the world, well ahead of our country.

According to a report by The World Bank, Cuba has the best education system in Latin America and the Caribbean and, thanks to its health system, has one of the region’s lowest infant mortality rates and longest life expectancies.

It is difficult to predict what the future holds for this island that attempts to adhere to socialism while flirting with capitalism.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan