December 2, 2003

A Web of Indoctrination Catches Cuba's Students
Claudia Marquez Linares

What has happened to freedom of thought in Cuba today? Let me tell you a story.

When my son's kindergarten teacher asked him to bring a plastic gun to school, I was surprised. I asked Cristian, then 5, why the teacher wanted this toy, but he didn't know. I went to the classroom to ask and found the teacher distributing plastic weapons and shouting, "Go! Shoot! Boom, boom! We are killing imperialism!" All the children, including my son, were shooting in the air and shouting "Boom, boom!" against this invisible specter the teacher told them was imperialism.

This was one of those exercises that Cuban teachers are expected to put their students through, and we, the parents, have no say in. If we oppose it, we may be branded as counterrevolutionaries and sentenced to jail for "acts against the normal development of a minor."

Powerless, I stood speechless in the corner and soon left.

Education in Cuba is free and obligatory until age 16, but it is infused with the ideology that rules our island.

Cristian is now 6 years old and learning to read and write. Recently one of his assignments was to write letters to the five Cuban agents jailed in the U.S. on charges of spying. In Cuba they are known as "the five heroes, prisoners of the empire." The teacher told my son that the men were in prison for defending the homeland. When I told Cristian that his father, Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, leader of the Liberal Party and lifelong dissident, was in jail under an 18-year sentence for demanding freedom for all Cubans and defending his homeland, he answered: "No, Mummy, you are wrong. It is the five heroes who are jailed for defending the homeland." This is what the teacher had said.

I have labored to make sure that my son is not ashamed of his father. The school principal has informed me that those children whose parents are in prison need special treatment -- hinting of some sort of retaliation if the children do not toe the line.

Since his father was detained in March as part of the crackdown on dissidents that landed 74 other courageous Cubans in jail for an average of 20 years, my son has been restless and confused. It's no wonder. He cannot explain to the teacher or his schoolmates that his father is a good man who is jailed for defending freedom and democracy. He speaks of his father only with close relatives. When I told him that his father was in jail on orders from our president, he answered: "Ah, Mummy, don't you speak evil of Fidel: They will take you away too, and I will be crying a lot!"

From primary school to university, we Cubans learn that to dissent from the Communist Party line means our marginalization. Sometimes merely voicing one's hopes is taken as offense. Larri Rodriguez Reyes, a 21-year-old computer science student, is awaiting the disciplinary commission's decision on whether he will be dismissed from his university. He has been suspended since Nov. 6 for "making public and notorious remarks of counterrevolutionary character" -- speaking critically of the revolutionary process in Cuba. He told his colleagues that "freedom better come to our island sooner rather than later."

Rodriguez Reyes' parents insist that he repent to avoid being dismissed permanently. He does not want to take back his comments. He feels betrayed by those who denounced him in a public academic tribunal (a kind of court of peers) although, he said, they often agreed with him in private. Later, these same colleagues confessed to him that they had to go after him or they would get in trouble. Rodriguez Reyes vows to fight for reinstatement because "nobody can deny me education for the simple fact of expressing dissenting opinions."

According to the official propaganda, the Cuban people are the most educated in the world, but what use is education if we have no freedom, what use is education when it turns into a weapon of mass indoctrination?

Claudia Marquez Linares is vice president of an independent, association of Cuban journalists and co-editor of its samizdat, review, De Cuba.?