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Decolonized Cuba? Challenging racial and cultural discrimination through education

MALCOLM RICHARDS reports back from a recent NEU delegation to Cuba

IN October 2018, I was selected as one of 25 teachers from across England and Wales to visit Cuba as part of a National Education Union delegation. 

I was keen to engage in exchanges of pedagogy, cultural exchange and solidarity with all colleagues and comrades. 

As a black educator working within a hostile environment, I wanted to explore how Cuban education could offer inspiration, to my union and its members, in challenging the daily discrimination faced by black and ethnic minority educators.

The National Education Union has long been recognised as an advocate for equitable rights for all. 

Multiple NEU-commissioned reports, such as Visible and Invisible Barriers: The Impact of Racism on Black Teachers (2017), have revealed the unequal educational experiences of professionals and students in schools across England and Wales. 

Since 2016-17, there have been “sharp and significant increases” in racialised bullying and attacks reported in 39 local authorities. 

Over 60 per cent of black and ethnic minority teachers are thinking of leaving the profession (Runnymede Trust, 2017). 

Schools have, for generations, been challenged for failing to deliver a “culturally appropriate curriculum.” 

With the scars of Grenfell and Windrush still fresh in the mind and multiple government-led reports evidencing racial disparity, there appears a palpable demand for action with tangible results. 

Across six days, the delegation visited trade unions, schools, a university and community organisations in Havana and Pinar del Rio. 

From the first encounter to the last, it was clear that Cuba has taken deliberate steps to ensure that black and ethnic minority perspectives, and those of the Afro-Cuban community, are centrally referenced. 

Cultural values, heritages and diversity are placed at the centre of the education experience for every Cuban. 

We visited eight schools across Havana and Pinar del Rio, and were met by Cuban school leaders, teachers, and young students dressed immaculately in the white and red, or white and yellow school uniform worn by this age group throughout the country. 

At the entrance of every education setting, on notice boards, displays and presentations, were colourful and creative historic accounts of Cuba. 

We met government officials, teachers, head teachers, university lecturers and senior trade union officials who proudly identified as Afro-Cuban. 

This was a complete reorientation of my expectations of the trip — seeing Afro Cuban knowledge, culture and representation celebrated and accepted within Cuban education as the norm.

The Cuban education system clearly promotes arts, music and dance at all levels and age groups, and we were repeatedly met by a choir demonstrating synchronised rhythms, harmonies and soul. 

The artistry, sound and rhythm of Afro-Cuban art was a central theme to our travels, as a welcome, essential socio-cultural experience or as a parting gift, memorably by ballet, samba and chorister performance at the Music School in Pinar del Rio. 

Whoever we met, cultural expression of art, spirituality, creativity and movement remained at the centre, acknowledged with pride as Afro-Cuban, but always Cuban. 

This included the open duality of Cubans practicing Santeria, and worshipping Orisha, deities of the Yoruba (Nigerian) belief who are known and revered for specific characteristics. 

It was hard for all delegates to comprehend the significance of the fact that we were in a nation where a quarter of the diverse population place, at their spiritual centre, African spiritual practices. 

As a person of African descent, I believe the transatlantic slave trade is a common recent historical link that binds global communities together. 

The legacy of enslavement in Cuba is often referenced in English and Welsh education spaces as a footnote to the history of the Cuban Revolution. 

In Cuba, the Maangamizi was told with a truth and honesty alien to what had been heard in formal education spaces. 

We heard of the European trade in African bodies, sugar and the return of goods (including sugar, rum, molasses and tobacco). 

Students knew that over one million African slaves were brought to Cuba during this time. They also knew of the rebellion and revolution of 1825, and of the role of African slaves in the liberation movements led by national heroes such Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, or later Jose Marti and of course Fidel. 

The pre-1959 erasing of Afro-Cubans from history was a source of obvious shame, but one which education and curriculum clearly sought to overcome.

A wonderful evening was spent with a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR) group in the Obispo district of Havana. Over eight million Cubans are members of a CDR, contributing to ensuring the needs of community members are met. 

Our group, led by a diverse group of Cubans, were an active neighbourhood community group, which arranges cultural and community festivals, administers voluntary projects and takes an active role in vaccination campaigns, blood bank drives, recycling and the coordination of their local area. 

The CDR offered spaces created for cultural education with an emphasis on recording, preservation and celebration involving intergenerational discussion — the whole community. 

The work of the CDR was reminiscent of the black supplementary schools which was started in Britain in the mid-1960s, by African and African Caribbean communities. 

My reasoning and connection with Jorge, a veteran of multiple community campaigns, offered further insight into how the Afro-Cuban experience is seen as not divisible from the Cuban experience.

The most powerful experiences of the delegation for me were when speaking with the Afro-Cuban communities in Pinar del Rio and Havana. 

I was constantly offered and gladly reciprocated salutations of Rasta, with intergenerational members of the Afro-Cuban community offering love and respect for our blessed African heritage. 

It was engaging in dialogue with “Eddie” that perhaps impacted most on my experiences in Cuba. Eddie shared honest youthful experiences where he and his friends shaved their dreadlocks off to avoid discrimination from employers and frequent challenges by police. He had two jobs, worked long hours and had little time to see his daughters. 

We both acknowledged that there are unequal experiences in Cuba, with racism and discrimination a reality for the Afro-Cuban community, despite many legislative advances. 

I asked Eddie about life as an Afro-Cuban. He told me clearly “life is hard here.” When I asked why, he answered simply: “El bloquero.” 

For Eddie, the ongoing illegal United States commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba ensures that material, travel and exchange barriers are in place for every Cuban — without discrimination. 

But despite the economic disadvantage faced through “El bloquero,” the true legacy of the revolution remains. Cuba is a nation that offers an educational experience which seeks to support every one of its communities. 

According to the World Bank, Cuban education has the highest rate of investment of any government in the world, at 13 per cent of GDP. 

The annual rate of literacy of young people aged 15-25 is 100 per cent; 100 per cent of children aged six to 16 are in education. There are no annual university tuition fees. Class sizes are a maximum of 25. 

Looking back to our experience in England and Wales, there has to be another way. A collective, palpable demand for action with tangible results is achievable, with my experiences in Cuba suggesting as much. 

Black communities have long demanded that education accepts our historical shames, and provide dialogue for reflection and reparation. 

We, as in Cuba, have educational expertise and a rich cultural heritage that provides examples of outstanding pedagogy, practice and resources. 

The difference is that Cuba has embraced a reframing of knowledge and curriculum from different perspectives. While unconscious bias, overt and covert discrimination likely exists there, it was not as present as my daily lived experience as an educator and activist. 

A growing community of diverse educators from within our union, in communities, schools and academia believe there must be a commitment by all to decolonising our education system. 

Decolonising requires an acknowledgement of, and a commitment towards, steps which reimagine the knowledge and curriculum we teach which reinforces dominant colonial legacies. 

Cuba demonstrates that through collective action and responsibility, we can all begin the journey towards a more equitable education system. 

It is only then we may be able to consider education as equitable for all. 

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