Founded upon the belief that all children have the right to quality schooling at no charge, Castro's socialization of education following the 1959 Cuban Revolution is miraculously surviving on half the budget it once had.
Even 40 years of U.S. economic sanctions - aimed at forcing a popular uprising against the dictator, who marked his 75th birthday Tuesday - have had little-to-no influence in damaging the communist country's much-admired education system.
"Cuba maintains its ability to focus on education because of the large segment of the state budget that it devotes to education," said Pamela S. Falk, professor of international law at the City University of New York.
It may appear implausible that one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere - Cuba's average annual income in 1999 was $1,700 - can still finance a school system that successfully educates its people. But it does. Cuba's literacy rates are among the highest in all of Latin America and are on a par with much of the industrialized world.
In 2000, almost 96 percent of Cubans older than 15 were considered to be literate, according to the CIA World Factbook. That's just 1 percent less than Americans and more than twice the rate of Haiti. Mexico's literacy rate sags below 90 percent and Brazil barely surpasses 83 percent.
"Cuba's great contribution in the area of education was its early literacy campaign, which set the stage for a very educated and informed population," Falk said.
Castro's 1961 school campaign continues to guarantee a free education, even when the funding is lacking. What Cuba lacks in economic wealth, it makes up for in its reverence for youth, said Michael Niman, professor at the University of Buffalo Center for the Americas.
"In the face of the embargo and their own economic problems, Cuba has been able to supply a uniform, across-the-board, quality education to all of its children," Niman said.
Approximately 94 percent of 6- to 16-year-old Cubans were enrolled in school in 1997-98, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
State-mandated education programs require all Cuban children to complete their education through age 15. From there, students may choose to enter the workforce or attend a technical school, sports school or pre-university school.
Pre-university schooling is not compulsory, but it is free. Those who graduate may attend one of Cuba's 32 colleges at no cost as well. According to a study by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), one of every 15 Cubans holds a university degree.
Cuba's free schooling does have one noteworthy feature that rankles the U.S. government: It come with classroom instruction in communist theory and anti-capitalist viewpoints. There also is intense pressure for teacher and student involvement in non-educational political activities organized by the state.
Acceptance to a university is partially determined by a test that assesses the applicant's "revolutionary" attitude. The student's participation in communist youth organizations positively affects the chances of admission.
Students can select a preferred field of study, but the state ultimately assigns the highest rated applicants - politically and academically - to the most desirable careers.
Every specialized program incorporates communist ideology into its curriculum. In addition, regardless of their area of study, students must fulfill basic requirements, which include courses in scientific communism. Upon graduation from college, students must work several years for Cuba's communist government.
Recently, however, Cuba's free education has been hit hard. The 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union meant the loss of Cuba's prime trading partner and forced the regime to cut education spending in half.
As a result, teachers often work with inadequate supplies and obsolete equipment. Even after a February 1999 salary increase, most earned the equivalent of approximately $20 per month. As prime witnesses of their teachers' struggles, fewer and fewer young people are willing to enter the profession.
According to Cuba News, in 1990-91, Cuba had more than 230,000 teachers. The number fell to less than 200,000 by 1998-99. To make up for the shortage of teachers, Cuban children are increasingly being taught by state officials and individuals who have not completed their formal training.
In the future, Cuba's struggle to maintain its high-quality education system at a low cost is likely to intensify.
Currently, students are finding creative ways to deal with the shortage of funding. Students write in their books with pencils so their work can later be erased and the books reused. They are constantly rebinding books and fixing school furniture as part of their mandatory "labor education."
Other changes are also likely to be in the offing, experts say.
"One would assume over time that the schools would begin to offer other ideological and conceptual approaches to 'philosophy' which is now uniquely Marxist-Leninist," Falk said. "With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Cuba's educational curriculum will likely see an overhaul - although the emphasis on rural and urban literacy will surely be a focus."
By ROBIN SACHER
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