Reports from Cuba: Primary school textbooks in Cuba: Ideological manuals

Laura Rodriguez Fuentes writes from Santa Clara via Diario de Cuba:

Primary School Textbooks in Cuba: Ideological Manuals

In the late 1990s journalist Mario Vallejo approached Vilma Espín in New York, when the then-president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) had traveled to the United States to participate in a United Nations conference. In a short and quick interview, the reporter inquired about the contents of primary school books in Cuba; specifically, on the issue of the use of weapons, taking as reference a text that appears in the first-grade book A leer, on page 84. The passage reads: “The militiaman has a rifle. He loves peace. In the right hands, a rifle is good.”

The founder of the FMC, who had not yet realized that she was being questioned by a channel based in Miami, replied: “We must not fall into their hands by paying attention to that kind of rubbish,” and added: “Boy, don’t ask me that, you’re going to lose your job. “

The vast majority of school books for primary-level education in Cuba were published in 1990 by Pueblo y Educación. The textbook itself,  A leer, was “corrected” in 2010 and released again with very few changes. On page four one can see the image of a militiaman dressed 80s style. Below are illustrations and poems about the military beret, rifles, and the May 1 parades in the Plaza.

More than 40% of the paragraphs and readings present in this primary-level academic material allude to political issues and transmit socialist ideological content, some more subtly than others, while highlighting episodes of the armed struggle, and figures like Fidel Castro, Celia Sánchez, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Guevara. The sentences in the first grade text used to teach  “C” and “Ch” refer to these last two figures in revolutionary history, with the sentences “Che fought in Cuba” and “Camilo lives”.

At a panel discussion held at the ICAIC Cinematographic Cultural Center on October 28, 2010, in which researchers from the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists, and several authors of works created for primary education, participated, the outdated nature of many of these texts was recognized, with many dating from 1989 or 1990, with subsequent editions in which the changes made are almost imperceptible.

Ricardo Quiza, a historian and professor at the Department of Philosophy and History of the University of Havana, stated, in a debate with the writers published in the magazine Temas, that the textbooks are characterized by “a predominance of the history of political processes, infused with elements of Marxism and economic processes, promoting an excessively structuralist vision of society, framed with figures and data, and spiced up with the epic stories of the feats of great heroes and their feats, supposedly contributing to foster positive values, but sometimes going too far. “

A survey completed by this group of Cuban researchers and authors found that 63.7% of the women interviewed, and 94.7% of the men, considered the textbooks complementary materials for their children. In this regard Cuban writer and essayist Enrique Pérez Díaz stressed that, lacking complete and updated books, students turn to other resources to do their work, such as the Internet, or the portable Wikipedia.

The study itself also revealed that most Cubans believe that their primary education manuals do not reflect the country’s cultural and social diversity. Much of the complementary content and images are Havana-centric, and ignore issues like gender, race and religion.

According to Georgina Arias, a pedagogue and specialist at the Ministry of Education’s (MINED) Directorate of Primary Education, “the books have many deficiencies. Around the world they are updated about every ten years. We, for obvious reasons, have not been able to do so. The ministry has not been able to tackle this task again. Everyone is aware that it cannot wait any longer, because twenty years have passed (…) a general revision is necessary, as was done at the beginning “.
Pioneers for Communism

Malena Cárdenas, the mother of an eight-year-old boy, has been waiting for a visa to reunite with her husband in the United States for three months now. A few weeks ago she had to meet with the school principal because the teachers were “scaring” her son. They told him that he would have no friends there, because it was “a country of bad people.” Malena has detected the influence of the curriculum’s political contents in her son’s behavior.

“Any adult eye, moderately trained and tired of the propaganda, can tell,” she says. “Children, however, do not realize this, and incorporate that dosage of ideology into their thinking. In my son’s books they were talking about socialism and imperialism when he didn’t even know how to add and subtract. And it is not limited to just those texts. In the homework, for example, they are assigned sentences related to political figures, or to the CDR. Fortunately, as parents today our thinking is more independent, and we avoid being manipulated with these ideas of good and evil. “

Another mother interviewed said that she took exception to her son learning to read and write through texts that only refer to the armed struggle and “even the election of candidates.” “I remember one that was about what Fidel wanted children to be like.”
The first, second and third-grade reading materials repeatedly mention the word “Yankee”, associating it with evildoers, in contrast to the concept of the new man and the defiant Cuban people. The book designed for the second grade was published in 1989, and in it one can find stanzas of poems like: “Throughout Cuba / the pioneers advance / they are the soldiers / of a new world”; and “Be like the brave fighter Che / is the beautiful goal of the pioneers. ” At the bottom of this page, as a reading comprehension task, the authors posed the question: “What do the Cuban pioneers want to be like?”

Philosophy professor Rosa Álvarez stressed, in the publication of the magazine Temas, the importance of independent thinking in children. “Sometimes I say to my students: ‘You can disagree with what I tell you’; I want them to challenge me, but to have arguments of why ‘I am against this and that’. This is why I think that the education system is, to a degree, designed to create people who just repeat slogans , like parrots, and that is not the way it should be. “

According to Lourdes Ferrer, a retired teacher who currently tutors children in different subjects in her living room, the methodological curricula demanded students’ Marxist, socialist education. “We had to prioritize readings related to the heroes of the Fatherland, those related to the struggle for independence, and the Revolution. That was not negotiable. It came down from above. Whatever was in the books, that is what you had to teach them.”

“Every Cuban, a soldier”

The introduction to the history of the Cuban nation in school texts is rife with passages and symbols of the guerrilla struggle, as well as constant reference to formerly socialist countries. This can be seen in various poems and stories: “I know very beautiful stories / of the heroes of El Moncada, of the Sierra and the bearded ones / of the landing of the Granma” (page 86, Lecturas, 2nd grade). Next there is the image of a girl cleaning the boots of her militia parents, who will be attending a parade the next day, with a text concluding with the phrase: “I will also be in the militia, like Mom and Dad.”

In Cuban schools, according to psychologist Mireya Aldama, whose has resided in the United States for years, students’ political perceptions are shaped starting at the preschool level. “The children get the message, by means of repetition,” says the specialist.

“A basic example is the motto ‘Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che’. From an early age they are taught to identify with political figures and leaders, their images, their semblances. They are depicted as kinds of demigods, without any defects, almost otherworldly. Since the 70s Cuban books have portrayed an idyllic image of Cuba and the countries of the then-socialist camp, in contrast to the “imperialists”, sometimes in a subtle way, and sometimes with a distinct ideological component. “

Another episode in the same book, entitled “Las FAR”, reads: “The Revolutionary Armed Forces include soldiers, aviators and sailors. All are our comrades, and bear weapons to protect the people and defend them from their enemies. In the socialist countries the Armed Forces are revolutionary. And being revolutionary means always being on the side of the people, and always defending them.”

In a short story on page 163 they call for a class exercise to act out a scene in which a Soviet girl named Natasha receives candies from a “brave and beautiful country” as a gift for “behaving like a good pioneer.” Later one can read a set of verses dedicated to Cuban women, who must be card-carrying, revolutionary cederista, with a “rifle on her shoulder”, a woman of “tenderness and action.”

In various articles and discussions Cuban intellectuals have expressed their concern about the outmoded contents of the books, averting mention of their repeated political themes. And they have underscored, in general, that they do not address pressing social issues in the country, such as homosexuality and drug addiction. Some of these manuals even feature antiquated references to the positions of political leaders. Professor and Secretary of the Commission for the Study of the History of the Church in Cuba, Enrique López Oliva, said: “I am very concerned about the textbooks. I am opposed to them, because they remind me a little of the Catholic Church’s catechisms, manuals that dictate truths that one must learn by heart, and accept.”