February 19
Dateline: La Escuela de Cienfuegos

Our group headed to the seaside resort town of Cienfuegos, where we would spend about three hours on our own. Being a retired urban educator who is still doing educational consulting work in Washington, D. C., I wanted to focus on schools and school children. We asked and found directions to a school that was in walking distance.

Given the signs of hard life you encounter in Cuba, there is one educational statistic that stands out as a  seeming impossibility. But it has been documented. According to a 2009 World Bank study published in 2010, an astounding 99.83 of Cubans over the age of 15 are literate, a rate which puts the United States to shame.

Reading has long been a priority in Cuba. When Fidel Castro first took control in 1959, he ordered a literacy campaign for the entire island. At the time of the effort, the literacy rate in Cuba was 60%. Castro sent  “literacy brigades” out into the cities and countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the predominately illiterate Guajiros (peasants) to read and write. In a matter of a few years, the literacy rate rose to 96%.

Also, quite interesting for a government supposedly ruled by an anti-democratic dictator, schooling and education, all of which are free to Cuban citizens of any age, became a priority, In 1956, only about 56% of school-age children attended school. Today, that rate is 100%.

So what did we find in our brief, informal school visits? Most of the students wear simple uniforms. They smile a whole lot. The teachers act as if they love their jobs and treat the students with kindness, love and respect. The students smile while doing their work, most of which involves producing something creative no matter what the subject. They seem grateful for a chance at an education and like to show off what they have learned. I made a mental note: Cuba appears to have much to offer the United States in the field of education, especially with reading. I vowed to begin researching that idea as soon as I returned home.

Later in the afternoon, we rejoined our group for a vocal concert by the Chorus of Cienfuegos performed in an acoustically perfect town hall building. To say the concert was impactful would be a major understatement. After the first  two numbers, I glanced around and every single female in our group was crying. Most of the men, myself included, were also wiping a tear from their eyes.

At the end of the magnificent  performance,  Judy had the best summation: “It really did sound like angels singing.”

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order