Cuban tutors struggle with pay

August 24, 2007

Poverty is driving Cuba's academics to take work as waiters and taxi drivers. Jason Mitchell reports

Many of Cuba's best academics are leaving the profession or are taking second jobs in tourism to supplement their income.

The standard of living in Cuba fell dramatically during the so-called Special Period, which began in 1991 and lasted throughout the 1990s, when Russia was created after the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the new Russian Government stopped the export of heavily subsidised oil and gas to the island.

Critics of the Cuban Government claim that living standards have not recovered since that time; they also say that many academics - along with other professionals - have been forced to take jobs as taxi drivers, waiters, porters or other tourism-related work to earn hard currency.

Juan Clark, a Cuban-born professor emeritus of sociology at Miami-Dade College and author of Cuba: Myth and Reality , said: "Unfortunately, there are many academics who prefer to be waiters because of the chance to get some tips in dollars. Others work in the black market.

"They are academics by day and, if they have a car, for example, work as taxi drivers by night. Some rent out their houses or rooms in their homes to tourists.

"I have even heard of cases of female academics being forced to become prostitutes for foreign tourists," he said.

Junior academics start on salaries of about 400 Cuban pesos (£7.50) a month, while more senior academics can earn 600 Cuban pesos (£11.40) a month.

In many Latin American countries, academics who teach disciplines such as law, medicine or engineering are able to work in the private sector to supplement their income, but this is prohibited in Cuba.

They can only work in government departments or state-run agencies, which pay badly.

Ana Lopez, director of the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans, said: "The Cuban faculty used to be top notch, but since the Special Period there has been a kind of brain drain.

"Many academics have left the universities and moved into the tourist sector. On the island, you cannot earn enough money to survive by just being a university teacher.

"A large number of the best academics have also left some of the country's top universities, such as the University of Havana, to work in interdisciplinary centres, such as the Centro Juan Marinello in Havana. These are borderline academic institutions that teach Cuban culture and arts to foreign people. They do not teach Cuban nationals."

Traditionally, the island has had one of the best-educated populations in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, standards may have slipped since the Special Period.

According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, Cuba's gross enrolment for tertiary education of the relevant age cohort was 61.5 per cent in 2005 against 53.6 per cent in 2004. The equivalent 2005 figure for the UK was 59.7 per cent and 82.7 per cent for the US.

Dr Lopez said: "The island's university system has been pretty good. There have been rigorous programmes in the arts, culture and literature. The Cuban Government has invested heavily in engineering and technology, and there is cutting-edge research being undertaken in those disciplines.

"However, with so many leading academics having left the profession, one would presume that the standards of teaching today are not as good as they once were."

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said: "The quality of higher education on the island is fairly good. That was also true in 1959, before the revolution, of course. The University of Havana in particular is excellent.

"However, one must remember that everything in Cuba occurs through an ideological prism. There is not the free flow of information over the internet, for example. The Government puts a number of filters in place - anything political is barred. Not everyone has internet access. There are internet cafes on the island, but they are very expensive to use."

An indication of how isolated most Cuban academics are from the rest of the world is the fact that they are not allowed individual e'mail addresses at their academic institution.

There are departmental e'mail addresses, and only very senior academics have their own addresses.

Many teachers try to get around this by setting up Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail accounts, although the Cuban Government tries to stop them from doing so.

Furthermore, computer access within a department is generally restricted. Every faculty has a committee or "cell" attached to the Communist Party that keeps an eye on the academics' activities.

Moreover, during President George W. Bush's Administration, cultural and academic exchanges between the US and Cuba have waned markedly.

Sandra Klinzing, an assistant director of the Latin American Studies Association, based at the University of Pittsburgh, said: "Lasa is hosting its th international congress in Montreal in September, and we expect more than 4,000 attendees.

"Since Lasa is not permitted under guidelines from the Office of Foreign Assets Control [part of the US Treasury] to provide funding for Cubans to attend conferences outside the US, we do not have information regarding the attendance of Cuban scholars this year.

"I can tell you that prior to the 2003 congress, some Cuban scholars were granted visas to participate. For the 2006 conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, no Cuban scholar was granted a visa to participate in the meeting."

Even when Cuban academics were allowed to take part in exchanges to the US, the Cuban Government would allow only professors with close ties to it to travel.

It is also difficult to contact academics directly at the other important universities, such as Oriente and Las Villas. It is understood that teachers from these universities need permission from the University of Havana before they can travel to overseas conferences.

University teachers on the island also have problems accessing academic papers. It can be difficult for Cuban academics to obtain printed copies of papers from the US, and they may not be able to afford to subscribe to papers online.

Undergraduate university courses in Cuba are heavily lecture-based. The first and main stage of higher education usually lasts for four or five years. In medicine, studies last for five or six years.

Non-formal studies are offered in many centres of higher education, which provide courses for workers, in addition to traditional full-time courses.

According to Unesco, some 20,000 people completed first degrees in 2005 (education, medicine and law were the most popular subjects) against 18,000 in 2003.

Since 2004, the Cuban Government has insisted that many professionals - especially doctors - return to university to do a one-year refresher diploma course. Unesco says the number of people completing secondary courses has shot up from about 4,000 in 2003 to 58,000 in 2005. Most of these people will not have been to university for many years.

The demand for people to teach this specific programme has led to a huge increase in the overall number of academics to 41,425 in 2006 from 24,723 in 2003. However, these teachers are not involved in any traditional university teaching, and many long-standing faculty members have left to earn more money in tourism.

The high educational standards in Cuba could be a strategic advantage for the island in any post-Communist era.

William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington, DC, which runs a cultural exchange for its students to the University of Havana, said: "In the future, I think Cuba will be well placed to compete in the world. Its highly educated population means that it should be able to move away from low value-added industries, such as tourism, to a high-value knowledge economy."

Although a large number of Cuba's best academics have left the profession, many of them could and would return if they were better remunerated and knew that they were contributing to the island's future.


Cuba's population is 11.39 million. Life expectancy is 77 years, the same as that in the US (Unesco data 2005)

The island's literacy rate is 99.8 per cent

In 2006, the country's GDP - purchasing power parity adjusted - was £20 billion, or £2,000 per person a year

The University of Havana, founded in 1728, is the oldest institution of higher education on the island and one of the oldest in the Americas

Some 44 per cent of students completing first-degree programmes in Cuba studied education, 21 per cent health and welfare and 19 per cent social sciences, business and law

The gross completion ratio for first-degree studies (the proportion of the overall population at a typical age of graduation that completes a first degree) was 14.2 per cent in Cuba in 2005 against 40 per cent in the UK for the same year, according to Unesco

The number of students enrolled in tertiary education per 100,000 inhabitants in Cuba in 2005 was 4,196, compared with 3,846 in the UK and 5,847 in the US, according to Unesco figures.

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