The Art Teachers Program, the school and the idea, were all a part of Fidel Castro’s dream to make Cuba “the most cultured country in the world.” However, just like his projects for Social Workers and fast track Primary School Teachers, this one was more ambitious than reality could allow for.
Only 14,000 out of 30,000 art teachers who graduated in Cuba between 2004 and 2014 are currently working as such, whether that’s in schools or at Cultural Centers, according to what Liliam Mendoza, the president of the Jose Marti Brigade (the organization that brings art teachers together), reported to Cuban Parliament in July 2017.
Artistic and/or professional frustrations as well as problems associated with mass recruitment and training (regardless of real artistic abilities) figure among the main reasons for the mass exodus.
That’s why, in the face of a teacher shortage, a new Art Teacher Training Program began last November with a total of 263 students at 8 of the country’s 37 art schools.
The new program, which isn’t going to satisfy the island’s needs (according to statements made by sources we spoke to at the National Center of Artistic Education and the Jose Marti National Brigade), is experimental and is therefore still subject to change and we don’t know what road it will go down.
The Art Teachers Program
Saidier Pineiro Ferrales graduated in 2011 as an arts teacher specializing in the Visual Arts. He is now 25 years old and lives in Bahia Honda, in the Artemisa province, working (by an ironic twist of fate) as a house painter in a maintenance team at the Mariel thermal power station. Just like Niurka or Yulian, he forms part of the over 15,000 art teachers who left their profession for different reasons.
Saidier began his Social Service work at the Jose Ramon Lopez Tabranes primary school, until, “the moment came when he couldn’t afford to anymore,” he said. That’s why he gave up the profession soon after graduating and also because “(…) I was disappointed to find myself working in bureaucracy, that was just the home of mediocrity. They only allowed me to work as a teacher, not as an artist, my creative and professional progress didn’t matter, and I’m an artist…”
That dilemma was present from the beginning of the art teachers training program; although Fidel Castro claimed at a graduation speech he gave after the first year of the EIAs, on October 20, 2004 in Santa Clara, that there needn’t be a contradiction between one job and the other, as “we shouldn’t cut artists’ opportunity to develop their own art, if they are able to fulfill their duties as teachers in a school.” However, reality was very different.
Throughout all those years, art teacher graduates were banned from accessing the evaluations that can bring endorsements needed in Cuba to be considered a professional artist and earn money for their work; with some exceptions made because of young people’s insistence and the in-depth engagement (in battles, case by case, against the Culture Ministry’s institutional bureaucracy) of representatives from associations of young artists (Hermanos Sainz) and the National Association of Writers and Artists (UNEAC).
Or to put it simply, like Niurka Torres Hodelin, a teacher specializing in Theater, “you only figured out what reality was after you graduated: 8 hours looking after children, classes, tests, we even had to cover other teachers from different subjects when they didn’t show up, which wasn’t in our job spec; maybe we found out that our vocation was art and not teaching, but it was a little too late by that point.”
Today, Niurka works as a music coordinator and is a journalist on Radio COCO, after also having studied Social Communication at Havana University.
In Yulian Perez’ case, he worked as a music teacher for four years and is now working as a tractor driver at the Humberto Cardenas state farm enterprise in Quemado de Guines, in Villa Clara. He blames the downfall of this program to disorganization. “I had to leave because everybody was giving out different orders and we were in no man’s land. We didn’t belong to Education or Culture, and both these institutions wanted to do things their own way. It was sad because the work was great, especially with the primary school kids,” he said.
Saidier Leon, on the other hand, refuses to give up on his dream, he paints in his free time so as to save the artist inside him and he shares his working time between the Mariel thermal power station and the II Cuban Art Project in Havana, which is dedicated to teaching children to appreciate the visual arts and is headed by Cuban professor and painter Miosotis Rivacoba Mesa.
Saidier, graduated as an arts teacher
According to the report presented at the VI UNEAC National Council meeting last November, “with an agreement made with the Education and Culture Ministries, training has begun with 12th grade graduates in nearly every province, taking into account the poor professional training received by those who are now practicing, not only in things that have to do with artistic specialties, but also in things that relate to the teacher’s social function as a coordinator of efforts, in order to pick up on intellectual forces or of different available knowledge within each community.”
Unlike the previous program, current training will only last three years where students will take part in professional workshops which essentially prepare them for community work in the future and give them practical experience in all specialist areas: Dance, Theater, Visual Arts and Music.
Once they have graduated and while they do their Social Service, they will be able to take university entrance exams and develop their own art however they want to.
Apparently, problems seem to be fixed, at least, relating to the artist’s own artistic development. However, according to the graduates who were interviewed for this piece, training wasn’t the fundamental problem, teaching as a profession was. And this is where the issue of wages is key, not only to satisfy teachers, but in sustaining a program that has been subsidized completely by the State Budget of a country with an ailing economy. Recovering (and funding) a staff of 30,000 teachers doesn’t seem to be a realistic plan, not even for the authorities who are trying to make up lost ground.
Dayan Moreno, one of the young students who has started the new program in Havana tells us that he has two choices: you either leave the country or you study something until you can leave. “I don’t want to be an arts teacher, this is something they made up here, and I couldn’t get onto any other degree at University. So, before getting myself mixed up in trouble by “inventing” on the street or being stuck at home with my parents breathing down my neck, it’s better for me to study until I can fix my problem.”
The first Art Teachers Schools project appeared in 1961 so as to make cultural education reach every corner of the island. The project ended in 1969, due to a lack of resources and was picked up on here and there until, in 2000, it appeared as part of Fidel’s Battle of Ideas. Now, in 2018, prospects of the program lasting over time, providing quality training without it stopping and starting, don’t look too promising.