Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs
September 13, 2001
Intellectual and Academic Freedom in Cuba
Intellectual and academic freedom is limited and controlled in Cuba. When the Castro Government came to power, it made ideology the guiding force in academia and required intellectuals to produce work that reflected state interests. As part of its effort to eradicate traditional class lines, the new government expanded intellectual associations and activities but tightly controlled their membership and pursuits. Defining intellectual activities with an ideological litmus test eroded the independence and free thought of academia.
In a message to intellectuals in 1961 Fidel Castro defined the parameters for scholarly debate, designed to regulate criticism, by asserting "inside the revolution -- everything; outside the revolution -- nothing." This formulation signaled that questioning the basic tenets of the government was unacceptable, while leaving some room to discuss implementation of revolutionary policies. Those who refuse to go along with this formulation risk losing state-awarded privileges and educational and work opportunities for themselves as well as for family members. For many years, access to higher education and employment has been carefully controlled. Those who, or whose parents, stray off the ideological reservation are kept from attending university or shunted off to meaningless jobs after graduation. Similar tools are used to keep faculty and researchers in line, including prohibition on publishing, denial of foreign travel requests, reassignment to insignificant jobs, and still harsher treatment, depending on the gravity of the misdeed.
The Cuban Government employs an extensive censorship policy designed to minimize access to potentially "dangerous" ideas. The government maintains control over all print and electronic media. It is difficult for average Cubans to legally obtain reading materials that dissent from official ideology. Access to "sensitive" works for students and academics is possible only with authorization from a supervisor and approval from the appropriate Communist party entity. Access to the Internet and e-mail is likewise restricted to a limited number of individuals who are closely monitored. The Cuban Government is the only internet service provider, and access to many sites is blocked. Strict government controls of reading materials and electronic information not only stimulates interest in restricted materials, it also foments a bitterness among professionals who need these materials to maintain their work standards and improve their professional performance.
Private libraries operating without official permission have sprung up to feed popular hunger for banned materials. The government occasionally shuts these clandestine libraries down and confiscates their holdings, a practice which has been condemned by the International Federation of Library Associations. In November 1999 an independent journalist reported that hundreds of library books donated to Cuba by Spain were destroyed in Havana, presumably because the government objected to their content. Catholic diocesan and Masonic libraries, which began to reopen in 1993, operate with extreme caution, while Protestant groups have generally exercised self-censorship with respect to any non-religious materials in their collections.
Political and Ideological Indoctrination
An emphasis on ideological indoctrination permeates all levels of the Cuban educational system, but is enforced unevenly. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was less of a need to place emphasis on Marxist-Leninist training, but treatment of economic and political issues remains rigidly anti-capitalist and anti-U.S. Decree-Law 43 of March 1990 permits expulsion of teachers and students who "defam(e) or publicly disparag(e) the institutions of the Republic and the political, social, and mass organizations of the country, as well as its heroes and martyrs." Primary and secondary school curriculum includes heavy doses of communist theory and school children are well versed in anti-capitalist rhetoric. Children are also required to participate in political activities. For example, students in Havana were bused directly from school to join mass demonstrations in front of the United States Interests Section to call for the return to Cuba of the six-year-old boy Elian Gonzalez.
Claiming it is a program to teach children the value of labor, the government requires middle school students to spend at least one month a year away from home working in agriculture. The high school system is structured so that most students attend boarding schools where they spend half their time working the fields. The widespread separation of students from their homes has long prompted parental complaints that the practice weakens their authority over their children and promotes sexual experimentation at an early age. For much the same reasons, Pope John Paul II criticized the Cuban boarding school system, during his visit to the island in January 1998.
The Cuban University
Admission to university is partially determined by a test devised to assess the applicant's "revolutionary" attitude and the student's participation in communist youth organizations affects the chances of gaining entry. Students can note their preferred field of study, but the system assigns the highest rated ones (politically and academically) to the most desirable careers while the lowest rated ones are placed in unpopular fields like agronomy. Some fields of study, such as the social sciences, are denied to those who lack the proper revolutionary zeal and political awareness. At the university level, students are subjected to further indoctrination as ideology guides curriculum and research priorities. To fulfill basic requirements for any degree, college students must take classes in scientific communism, and historical and dialectical materialism. In addition, every specialized program incorporates ideology into its curriculum.
University admission requirements and academic study conditions have been severely affected by the Cuban economy in the past ten years. The leadership has dramatically decreased the number of slots in almost all professional careers stemming from university training, which means that proper political requirements are even more necessary to enter and excel in the Cuban university environment.
Although Cuba touts its free educational system, there is a price to be paid in terms of freedom of individual expression and career choice. The permanent, low-level tension over what one can and cannot say in the classroom and how economic and political issues must ultimately be addressed permeates all academic settings and is thoroughly understood by all university participants. There is intense pressure for teacher and student involvement in non-educational political activities organized by the state. All education and training is tied to a responsibility to the state and the government's perceived national interests. Thus, students must not only work for a period of years at a government designated place after they finish their higher education, this education is held over their heads and is used as a tool of moral obligation to produce conformity and acceptance of actions taken by the state. By being part of the system, one is considered to have forfeited any sense of "free professionalism" or independent practice.
The Cuban Government frequently denies exit permits to travel abroad to those academics and intellectuals who do not adhere to the official government line, cutting them off from vital interaction with others around the world researching in their fields of study. The government also denies entry to professionals seeking travel to the island if it objects to their opinions or work. In December Havana refused to allow two Miami Herald reporters to visit the island. In January the government denied visas to an entire 38-member delegation of the National Conference of Editorial Writers scheduled to visit Cuba because members of the Miami Herald's editorial board -- to whose opinions the Castro Government objects -- were part of the group.
Suggestions for Those Planning Trips to Cuban Schools or Universities:
If you visit a secondary boarding school or university, also note the condition of the dorm facilities and ask the students about the availability, quality, and quantity of food and how dependent they are on parents and others to supplement official rations. Ask the students how much work they have to perform outside of academic pursuits. Try to ascertain the degree to which students can freely express religious beliefs without consequence. Look for computer terminals and ask the students about unrestricted internet access.
If you visit a library, walk around the stacks and note the quality, quantity, language, and age of the books and other materials. Look for books on basic economics or politics. What titles do you see? Which periodicals are available? Are there computer terminals?