Who's Who

Education and Cuba Libre, 1898-1958

Laurie Johnston explores the significance of public education in Cuba's efforts to forge a national identity in a period of US intervention.

Cuban schoolchildren in a classroom in the province of Guantánamo. Photo by Mikhail EvstafievThe last Spanish colony in the Americas, Cuba launched a second war for independence in 1895, more than half a century after the establishment of independent republics in the rest of Spanish America. However, the intellectual war against Spanish domination began earlier, before the first failed revolution of 1868-78.

In particular, many nineteenth-century Cuban intellectuals, including Cuba's 'apostle' Jose Marti, believed that the Catholic education of the colonial period, available only to elite men, operated as a means of suppressing national liberation by preaching loyalty to crown and church. Cuba Libre or Free Cuba, they argued, the independent and democratic nation for which so many Cubans fought and died, could not be successfully established without the foundation of a system of free, universal, secular public education.

Cuba effectively had no tradition of public education under Spain, and the war of 1895-98 devastated her few educational resources along with the rest of the island. In 1898 the United States military intervened in the war and, after the defeat of the Spanish, occupied Cuba for the next three years. US observers, often openly racist, pronounced Cubans to be largely ignorant, incapable of self-government, and proclaimed the advantages of US tutelage. Public education would be an important means of preparing Cubans to govern themselves. 'The American army proceeded to the conquest of the Spanish colonies, the sword in one hand and the school primer in the other', enthused the British report on the US educational reforms.

For the majority of Cubans, the US occupation represented a most unsatisfactory conclusion to their struggle for Cuba Libre. They tolerated the occupation on the understanding that it would be temporary. 'Notwithstanding the whisperings of knowledge and reason', complained one army administrator, 'Cubans as yet credit Cuba's independence of Spain to Cuban deeds'.

Fears persisted that the United States intended to annex the island. While Cubans expressed gratitude for US efforts to construct a public educational system, accusations that the military government planned to 'americanize' education fuelled these fears of annexation.

What provoked these accusations? The American administration modelled Cuba's public educational system on that of the United States. The school law of the state of Ohio provided the model for Cuba's school law. US curriculum formed the basis for the new Cuban curriculum, which employed Spanish translations of US textbooks. The military government sent Cuban teachers to the United States for training and US educators came to Cuba to design and teach in the new educational system.

The president of the American Patriotic League launched a programme intended to introduce US political beliefs and practices to Cuban students and their parents, modelled on one conceived for immigrants to the United States. The programme entailed organising schools as cities, with their own police force, mayor and other civil institutions. It attempted to instil in Cuban children the belief that, in contrast to Latin American societies where 'the people are impulsive and easily led by hotheaded orators', the United States had become 'the greatest and most successful of all republics'.

The United States ensured its continued influence over Cuba by insisting, as the price of its withdrawal from the island, on the incorporation of the notorious Platt Amendment into the new Cuban Constitution of 1901. The Amendment allowed the United States the right to intervene for 'the preservation of independence and the maintenance of a government adequate to the protection of life, property and individual liberty'. The occupation had facilitated the takeover of the essential elements of the Cuban economy by US concerns and the Platt Amendment provided the political means necessary to protect US interests. The United States used the Amendment frequently, and interpreted it broadly, to this end.

A second US occupation between 1906-9 quickly followed the withdrawal of the US army in 1902. The Cuban uprising which prompted the second intervention severely disrupted the school system. Even without the additional complications caused by this uprising, however, problems already plagued public education. The US government did not believe it needed to look far to find the reasons. It did not consider failings in the system which the previous military government had set up; Cubans themselves received the blame. 'We gave them an overdose', opined Lt. R.L. Bullard, the man in charge of education during the second occupation:

There is no people that has like faith or approximate like faith with us in school education as a cure for every human defect, individual, national or racial.

In spite of its good intentions, the United States could not overcome racial defects:

We prescribed [education] in too great quantity in succession to Indian, Negro, Filipino, and Cuban, with the same result in every case, - the patient's stomach turned.

In fact, Cubans placed great faith in the power of education to resolve all problems, both individual and national. They showed enormous enthusiasm for the new educational system. Communities built their own schools with donated supplies and labour; benefactors provided buildings and professional time free of charge. Many groups, including women's organisations, trade unions and student associations, set up schools for the people the system had missed. Support for the principle of public schooling became a way of expressing nationalism; no one could espouse nationalist beliefs and devotion to Cuba Libre without also supporting public education. 'To abandon education', declared Ramiro Guerra y Sanchez, a leading educator, 'is the worst crime which can be committed against the nation'.

In order to establish Cuba Libre, educationalists and nationalists believed public instruction must teach the rights and duties of citizenship, foster patriotism and national solidarity and aim to meet the country's employment and production requirements. No independent and democratic nation could succeed where public education failed. By the 1920s, however, it had become clear that Cuba's public educational system faced many difficulties: low enrolment; lower attendance; shortages and uneven distribution of schools and teachers; poor hygiene in schools; bunching in the lower grades; and small numbers of students completing primary education.

Corruption, one of the most salient and enduring features of public administration generally in pre-revolutionary Cuba, exacerbated these problems. Educationalists warned of increasing illiteracy, arguing correctly that only the immigration of educated Spaniards prevented literacy rates from dropping. 'Our public school', cautioned Ramiro Guerra, 'is not today in a condition fully to discharge the social function that belongs to it in connection with our republican institutions'.

Revelations of the problems in the public educational system led to considerable alarm which, in turn, contributed to a period of national self-criticism and a significant growth in nationalism, arising from increased awareness of Cuba's economic and political dependence upon the United States. A tension arose between widespread admiration of the educational system in the United States, often named as the ideal for which Cubans should strive, and recognition of the negative effects of US influence in Cuba.

The failure of Cuban governments to tackle the problems in public education induced many parents to abandon it, as the ever-expanding numbers of private schools in Cuba testified. Why did parents who could afford to, desert the state system of which the newly independent nation had been so proud? Practical reasons predominated, particularly the fact that not enough public schools existed to accommodate the number of children requiring them. The dreadful conditions in most of the public schools - poor hygiene, lack of materials and space, high teacher turnover and absenteeism - discouraged many; parents often sent children to private schools in protest.

Ethnic and religious influences and prejudices further guided parents in their choice of schools. The expanding Spanish immigrant community tended to see itself as distinct from native Cubans, and consequently favoured sending children to schools owned and attended by fellow Spaniards. Schools operated by religious orders and business concerns from the United States had their pick of Cuban students in addition to the foreign residents who normally attended; parents believed that graduates stood a better chance of gaining entrance to US schools for advanced study and ultimately of finding jobs. These schools followed the US curriculum and used US textbooks, as well as offering many courses in English.

Fears about with whom their children would mix also motivated parents. Co-education offended some, while others would not send their offspring to public schools attended by poor and black children. Finally, a number, particularly among the elite, believed that the state could not provide the same quality of education found in private schools, and in particular religious institutions.

In consequence, the number of private schools in Cuba grew steadily and at times dramatically throughout the pre-revolutionary period. Nationalists and educationalists alike condemned this trend, asserting that it threatened national cohesion and development. Nationalists believed that the successful consolidation of Cuba Libre required the development of a unique Cuban consciousness, or Cubanidad, committed to collective progress. They demanded a system of education inspired by love of patria, actively focused on Cuba, its history, its struggle for independence, its heroes. The dispute over whether private schools did or ought to encourage and promote Cubanidad and love of patria became one of the major battlegrounds in the debate over the forging of Cuba Libre.

In 1915 Ismael Clark, a school inspector, exposed the widespread and, he claimed, deliberate failure of private schools to fulfil their educational duties. He accused them of unacceptable educational standards, anti-nationalist attitudes and the perpetuation of class and racial divisions in society, which undermined the very basis of Cuba Libre. Private schools did not teach about patria, the child's relationship to it, the history of Cuba, or its patriots, he alleged. They failed to observe Cuban holidays and important days in the country's history. They acted as a 'focus of denationalization'. Furthermore, he claimed:

They use texts printed abroad, in which the subjects are not treated in accordance with scientific truth, nor a pedagogical plan, or in which Cuba is omitted, when it is not slandered.

He hoped to achieve, he wrote, the 'Cubanisation' of private education.

The theme of dark's protest, 'Cubanisation' captured in one word the nationalist aims of public education, the specific focus on Cuba which Cubanidad and love of patria demanded.

Clark maintained that private schools intensified racism and class divisions in Cuban society. He cited fear of contact with poor people and blacks in public schools as one of the reasons for patronising private schools. Private schools, he argued, fostered class differences in society not only through the values they represented and promoted but also by physically separating black from white and impoverished from wealthy. The latter practice in particular roused his ire. Some of the schools he described openly labelled children as rich or poor:

In consequence, [he wrote] children (and above all girls) are separated ... forbidden to meet even in the street ... and the parents of the poor children, because of vanity, because the school has a majestic name and their children wear a uniform, send their children there and consent to this humiliation!

Educationalist Arturo Montori pursued the link between Cuba's larger problems and the availability of private education. He argued that poor pedagogical standards and anti-nationalism in private schools affected principally the upper class, because the upper class attended these schools. Consequently, this class developed a low level of patriotism. As evidence of this assertion, Montori cited the large-scale sale of Cuban land and industry to foreigners, the preponderance of foreign (particularly US) businesses and their influence on Cuban culture, and repeated Cuban requests for foreign experts to advise on Cuban problems. Private schools, argued Montori, produced the badly trained and corrupt professionals and politicians who became such a feature of Cuban society. Private schools educated the class responsible for the frequent political disturbances in Cuba. 'In truth, almost all the great collective problems from which this society suffers', he maintained 'stem from the defective education which this social class now receives'.

The indifference and hostility of some private schools to patria and its history aroused strong passions in a country where the struggle for Cuba Libre took on mythic proportions; where, as historian Louis A. Perez Jr. has argued, 'dedication to Cuba Libre was more than a duty to a cause, ft was devotion to a faith'. The publicity given to Clark's allegations resulted in the formation of a lobby group which unsuccessfully attempted to convince the government to regulate private schools. Following this failure more pressing issues demanded the nation's attention, but the dispute would re-emerge.

In 1932 the Cuban government, true to Montori's assessment, invited a US educationalist, who could neither speak nor understand Spanish, to assess Cuba's educational system. He wrote a damning report. It should not have come as a surprise, as Cuban experts had already warned of the dire conditions in public education. However, the government refused to publish or circulate the report because it questioned Cuba's commitment to democratic rule, thereby undermining the image of Cuba Libre. Cuba's educational system, the report stated, revealed a national tendency to return to 'the life of aristocracy', or the inequalities and prejudices which the island had experienced under Spanish dominion. The government directed its outrage at this accusation, largely true, and ignored the problems concerning education which the report addressed.

In 1933, in the midst of the terrible economic hardship of the Depression, Cubans once again rose up against tyranny. Popular opposition forced the brutal president Gerardo Machado, suspected of attempting to make himself dictator, to depart the country. The overthrow of Machado, followed shortly by the abrogation of the Platt Amendment, appeared to signal at last a truly democratic and independent Cuba. The United States refused to accept the new nationalist government, however, and it fell. In the process, Fulgencio Batista became the leader of the army and the most powerful man in Cuba.

Batista co-opted the radical agenda of the revolutionary period and, through a mixture of reform and repression, quelled unrest. He turned his attention to two areas in particular: the countryside, where impoverished rural workers, encouraged by Communist activists, had formed Soviets; and to state education, where deeply dissatisfied teachers and students mounted serious opposition to the regime. Since 1930 schools had been closed, teachers fired, salaries withheld and students and teachers arrested and imprisoned (and frequently tortured and murdered) because of their opposition to illegitimate and violent government.

After brutally breaking the national strike of 1935, sparked by teachers and students, Batista profoundly altered the public educational system. Like previous governments, he strengthened central government control by firing troublesome teachers and increasing the number of centrally appointed inspectors. However, he planned to go further. To combat resistance both within public education and in the countryside, he designed his most radical and controversial project. In line with increased militarisation throughout Cuba, Batista militarised the rural educational system.

In 1936 he initiated a programme known as civic-military rural education in which sergeants in the army, many with no qualifications, took over rural teaching, particularly in areas where Communism had gained a large following. They reported to the army command, not to the Department of Education. The army built and staffed new schools, commissioned new textbooks and drew up new educational programmes.

How did Cubans, who had once again taken up arms for Cuba Libre, respond to militarised rural education? The initiative received some support, particularly as it promoted a specifically rural, rather than general, educational programme. Proponents argued that the army alone had the necessary organisation and discipline to undertake effective rural education. However, many Cubans, only too aware that the army had nearly tripled in size in three years, feared that military involvement in education would inevitably lead to military dictatorship. Batista's personal commitment to the programme nourished widespread anxiety that he intended to use it to consolidate his own power. Indeed, in the ten years of its existence the programme- failed to improve the quality of rural education, but it did help to pacify the countryside and to launch Batista's successful presidential bid in 1940. After ten years of violence, however, an exhausted nation could tight no longer. Instead, Cubans turned their attention to the drafting; of a new constitution in order to construct Cuba Libre.

The struggle for an independent, democratic nation built upon a system of free, universal, secular public education, seemed to be over following the promulgation of the constitution of 1940. This document enshrined the nationalist aims of education around which the debate of 1915 had centred. The new constitution declared:

All instruction, public and private, shall be inspired by a spirit of Cubanidad and human solidarity, forming in the minds of those being educated love of patria. its democratic institutions and all who have struggled for one or the other.

Having established the centrality to education of Cubanidad and love of patria, the constitution went on to bestow on the state the right to regulate private education.

In spite of the hopes which the new constitution generated, its achievements remained largely on paper. In many ways it served only to accentuate the contrast between nationalist conceits and Cuban reality, as the renewed attempt to regulate private education illustrates. Cuba's politicians would not pass the legislation necessary to implement regulation. In 1941 the introduction of the required legislation by a Communist senator gave rise to ferocious opposition; the clash over the state's right to regulate private schools was in effect a contest over who would control the education of the country's future leaders.

A conservative coalition calling itself 'For Country and School', formed by some private schools, Catholic organisations and conservative educators and politicians, attacked the legislation on the grounds that it represented an attempt by Communists to infiltrate education and to destroy the family. Liberal intellectuals and educationalists, including some private educators, united in response. Under the banner, 'For the Cuban School in Free Cuba' they rallied around the constitution, proclaiming as the true battle not a fight against Communism but the struggle for the Cubanisation of education on the island.

The ensuing conflict highlighted the weaknesses inherent in a purely nationalist analysis. Liberals chose to frame the debate as a question of nationalism, allowing their conservative opponents also to take a nationalist position. Liberal nationalists argued positively in favour of Cubanisation, while conservative nationalists took a defensive stance, inflaming fears of Communism and the destruction of family and nation. These positions largely reduced the dispute to protestations of nationalist fervour.

Consequently, the vital issues affecting education and its relationship to the larger society became eclipsed. Conservative nationalists avoided discussion of the issues by resorting to anti-Communist bombast. Liberal nationalists advocated regulation of private education, unable to raise the possibility of abolition within the established parameters of the debate. Indeed, some liberals actively supported the sustentation of regulated private schools to complement the public system, particularly in times of political and social upheaval.

By accepting the principle of private education, liberal nationalists turned their backs on the elitism and racism which private schools reinforced and in so-doing accepted a divided nation, in complete opposition to their espoused ideal of Cuba Libre. A nationalist perspective, whatever its merits, thus diverted attention from critical questions: why the public institution needed complementing by private institutions; the reasons for the persistent neglect of the public system, in spite of continual government promises to improve it; why so many regarded even bad private schools as preferable to their public counterparts; whether the government, as it was inclined to do, should have the right to close schools because of the political activities of the teachers and students who worked in them; the disjuncture between the skills of those produced by the educational system and the economic opportunities available to them; and the relationship between access to education, race, social position and financial resources.

Behind the nationalist oratory employed by both sides lay a contradiction between the rhetorical commitment to an ideal of one nation and the splintered country revealed at all levels of society. Education in Cuba paraded the economic and racial inequalities which afflicted the country. The spirit of Cubanidad and love of patria appealed to by all could not equalise these disparities. Indeed such rhetoric obscured more fundamental issues which demanded scrutiny: an economy, a polity, a culture stunted by Cuba's powerful northern neighbour; a political economy structured to reward the very few who could find a secure place within it, while marginalising those upon whose labour the structure relied; and an unfounded belief that education could somehow overcome all national problems and individual deprivations without addressing their origins.

By 1952 the dream of Cuba Libre lay in ruins. That year, the centenary of Jose Marti's birth and the fiftieth anniversary of Cuban independence, a military coup heralded the return of Batista, finally ending the imposture of liberal democracy which had limped painfully along since 1902. A diversified, stable economy had never materialised; Cuba still relied almost entirely on the sugar-cane and US capital which fed the seemingly endless economic cycles of boom, bust and stagnation. Havana acquired a reputation as a whorehouse and gambling den for US tourists, run by US crime syndicates. The abrogation of the Platt Amendment had not marked the end of US intervention on the island, it had merely effected a shift in methods. Deliberate attempts to influence the course of events continued, as in 1958 when Washington endeavoured to prevent Fidel Castro's victory by withdrawing support from Batista. The United States continued to hover over Cuba, affecting not only political culture and economic development, but also the very attempt to define an independent national identity as the split between those who admired the United States and those who decried US imperialism deepened.

Meanwhile, public education, proclaimed as the cornerstone of Cuba Libre for so long, 'had steadily deteriorated', according to a World Bank report. No serious attempt at improvement had ever been made. Private schools multiplied extraordinarily, impervious to state direction or control. Cuba's middle class struggled to finance secondary and university education for its children. For Cuba's miserable poor, the completion of even primary education became an increasingly remote dream.

Fidel Castro and his followers understood the disillusionment, cynicism and frustration afflicting the country. They took up the cry of the nation's past liberators and, when futile peaceful protest against Batista exposed the sham of the republic's institutions, they turned to the long tradition of armed struggle for the sake of Cuba Libre. Castro claimed for his movement the legacy of Cuba's apostle, Jose Marti. He reminded the country of Marti's words. 'An educated people', Marti had believed, 'will always be strong and free'.

During his trial after the unsuccessful assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953, Castro exposed the nation's misery. He included an economic analysis in his nationalist appeal and declared:

Our educational system is a perfect complement to our other problems. In a country where the farmer is not the owner of the land, why should any man want agricultural schools? In a city where there is no industry, what need is there for technical or industrial schools? ... Less than half of the children of school age attend rural public schools, and those who do are barefoot, half naked, and undernourished. Many times it is the teacher who buys the necessary school materials with his own salary. Is this the way to make a nation great?

Cubans agreed that it was not. When the fidelistas offered them a new dream of Cuba Libre, it is little wonder they followed.

Further Reading:

  • Louis A. Perez Jnr., Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1988) and Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy (University of Georgia Press, 1990)
  • Leslie Bethell, ed., Cuba: A Short History (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
  • Jules R. Benjamin, The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1990)
  • Sheldon B. Liss, Roots of Revolution: Radical Thought in Cuba (University of Nebraska Press, 1987)
  • Martin Carnoy, Education as Cultural Imperialism (David McKay, 1974)
  • Mark B. Ginsberg, ed., Understanding Educational Reform in a Global Context (Garland, 1991).

Laurie Johnston wrote this article while completing her PhD thesis on the history of primary and secondary education in Cuba, 1899-1958, at University College, London.

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