Cuba's plans for youth
The Australia-Cuba Friendship Society last week welcomed a visit by Otto Rivero Torres, the Cuban Minister for Youth. Comrade Torres, 33 years old, is also the First Secretary of the Union of Young Communist of Cuba, and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Below is an edited text of the speech Comrade Torres gave to a forum of young unionists and activists in the Jubilee Room of the NSW Parliament House. Firstly, I want to thank you for being present today, and we would like to thank you for the invitation to speak. Very few young Cubans have been to Australia, so we know little about the reality of life for young people here. With me today is Comrade Juan Carlos Marsan, Director of International Relations for the Union of Young Communists, and Alina Perera Rubbio, journalist for Juventud Rebelde, Cuba's leading youth newspaper. First let me discuss education. The triumph of the 1959 revolution lead to great progress in education of young Cubans, and one of the very first tasks undertaken was the eradication of illiteracy. The campaign began in the years of 1961 and 1962, when educated young people aged 14 to 17 marched to the remotest parts of the country to introduce literacy skills to the population. At that time, Cuba had a population of six million, and roughly 40 per cent of the population was illiterate; you can imagine the size of this task, and how far they had to travel! Today in Cuba we have a population of 11 million people, and there are 11,000 schools: 9000 primary schools; 1000 high schools; 900 colleges; and 72 university level institutions. We are proud to provide this for the youth of Cuba. From the age of five years, all children in Cuba are guaranteed schooling. When our new school year starts in September, Cuba will have reached a target of one teacher per 20 students in primary schools. Even schools, which now remain at the current level of one teacher per 30 students, will have this improvement in September. We believe that the role of a teacher is much greater than just teaching maths and so on, they must also play a valuable role in the whole development of the student, their values. A teacher can do that with 20 students or less in the classroom, but it is much more difficult with 30. During the last 20 months we have also reached a target of having one television and video recorder per 50 school students — for this we've had to buy more than 70 000 TVs and videos. Yet this school year we are trying to improve on that, we have set a new target of one TV and video per class. We are doing this because we believe that audiovisual equipment is essential for educating young people today. Within the last 15 days in Cuba we have inaugurated a program for teaching computing studies to all children aged five years and up — so in the new school year every class of 20 students will have one teacher, one video, one TV, and one computer. In the new school year we will have another 82 schools opening — some of them with only one student. In Cuba we provide a school for every child, even if they are the only one aged over five in their area. Whereas previously it was seen as enough to provide that one child with a teacher, that child will also now have a TV, video and computer — we want to provide every child with an equal opportunity in education. In Cuba we do not have the benefit of natural resources like Australia, so developing our human resources is vital for our future. If we have a population of 1, 000, 000 primary school students learning computing now, it will provide us in the future with a mass of people able to work as programmers and such. It's this vital need for human resources that drives us to constantly improve our education system. Another area we see as essential in the development of our nation is culture and the arts. We currently training 8000 teachers in the arts and next year it will be 12, 000, so that we will have at least one teacher for every school in the country. When we see a young person with problems, we must ask ourselves what responsibility does the school have, and what responsibility the family has. The school can't do it on their own and neither can the family We want all schools prepared to take on their share of the responsibility, and so we see a need to provide social workers. We are currently training 9000 young people to be social workers in Cuba, teaching them how to get bring families together with schools to help those children. We are also hoping to bring improvements to our secondary education system. In primary level as you know you've got one or two teachers, but in high school you've got up to 10 teachers who each specialise in just one subject. When young people reach adolescence they face a unique set of problems, but at that time their parents may still be occupied by younger siblings. Classes of 15 So we're looking at having high school classes of no more than 15 per teacher, and having some teachers who will be able to cover all the basic subjects. This will allow each high school teacher to spend a lot more time with individual students. In the last 43 years a culture has developed amongst young people where they now aspire to a university education. Yet we are currently only able to provide about 24 per cent of them with university level education. In Cuba we guarantee employment for all those who complete a university degree, so providing places for only this number means that tertiary education remains elitist. So another of our goals is to greatly increase access to our universities. Which brings us to our second point, that is employment. Last year Cuba had an unemployment rate of 4.1 per cent, this year we're trying to achieve 3.5 per cent. In 1994 the rate was eight per cent, the result of the economic hardship faced by our country from the loss of the socialist bloc of countries, with whom we had 80 per cent of our trade, and the legislation introduced in the United States aimed at tightening the economic blockade. Yet in the last 11 years our economy has recuperated. This is still not good enough. We are proposing 100 per cent employment for young people. And we see this employment growth coming in the service sector. The new courses we are going to run in universities, training new teachers, social workers and computer experts, will not only broaden the university opportunities for young people, but create employment opportunities in work that will improve the quality of life for all Cubans. In the last seven months we undertook a project to assess the skills of all the young people in Cuba and we now have 80000 of those young people back in school. They are doing university degrees, learning computing or English, and we are paying them a salary while they're studying. Basically we're employing them to study. We feel very motivated by what the young people in Cuba are doing. Their self-esteem as members of society has improved. We are providing them with a future. Political participation The third point I would like to address is the political participation of young people in Cuba, which is related to the previous two points also. Our country has managed very intelligently the manner in which young people participate in economic and political affairs. Firstly, we have the young pioneers organisation for children, with one million members. They have their own congresses, just like the Party. They actually hold their congresses in parliament, putting forward their points of view very strongly. Our Ministers look at this congress as one of the most important in the country. We also have the Students Union for secondary students — with more than 400,000 members. The Federation of University Student Unions is the oldest youth union in the country. Formed in 1902, it's always had a very strong role in the struggle within the country. The Communist Youth also have a very active role amongst the workers in the country, in all economic sectors, from the tourism industry to the basic industries like sugar, petroleum, nickel and electricity. As an organisation we are very strongly aligned with the unions. We have a very broad representation in the National Assembly, which allows us an even more direct way to influence the decisions made within our country. There's also a group of young people who, exactly 28 months and 10 days ago, began the struggle for the return of Elian — you were probably aware of that here in Australia. Another battle we are now undertaking is to liberate the Cuban five currently in prison in the United States. A group of 26 young people meets every day with the leader of the revolution, Comrade Fidel, and other leading Ministers to discuss this issue. In these last 28 months they've participated in about 700 of those meetings. That's about 4100 hours — the equivalent number of hours of study for a tertiary education degree. This group of youth greatly admire the young Australian swimmer Susie Maroney [present in the room]. Because of her we were able to cut one of those meetings short — Fidel had to rush out of the room to greet her when she arrived on the beach! She should remember that quite well, and know that in Cuba they love her very much. Thank you all for attending, I hope that I accomplished not being too boring for you today. (Laughter and loud applause).