Education and Cuba Libre, 1898-1958

The 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 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.

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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.

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And after the 1959 Revolution

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.

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