Monday, November 06, 2006

In the countryside

This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of Fidel Castro’s many loopy ideas to turn Cuban children into his own version of what used to be called The New Man: the Escuela al Campo program.

Under the program, entire secondary schools across Cuba would be shipped off to the countryside for a month or so every year in order to teach children as young as 11 how to become true revolutionaries.

In theory, students would spend the time in a combination of study and work which, on paper at least, doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Provided it was truly voluntary.

In fact, the month away involved very little study, lots of hard work out in the open (yes, cheap labour), and lots and lots of Communist indoctrination, which was always the real purpose of the exercise.

My school in Banes was one of those chosen to go to the countryside in 1970-1971.

And yes, you can read all about it in my book, Child of the Revolution: Growing up in Castro’s Cuba, which I am sure you know by now is available at all good bookshops in Australia and New Zealand – and due for distribution in the US in April.

My school was sent to a work camp in Punta de Mulas, which wasn’t all that far from home but almost impossible to reach because there was just a dirt track leading to the camp and bugger all transport for parents to visit. Not even trucks.

Despite the hard work - we were picking lemons for at least five hours a day -
and the shocking food and the endless political meetings, I had a pretty good time, as you would expect from a boy of about 12, who is away from home for the first time and who likes joining in.

But it was a different story for many of my school friends: they hated every minute of this enforced “holiday camp”. They hated the food. And the work. And being away from their parents. They were homesick most of the time, and they cried themselves to sleep night after miserable night.

Like most Cuban mothers, my mother also opposed the idea,
horrified at the thought that a regime she so distrusted had taken her boy away for a month of crude political indoctrination.

In reality, she had no choice.

Although it was not supposed to be compulsory, families who refused to let their children go to the Escuela al Campo back then knew they were headed for trouble with the school and the dreaded neighbourhood Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR).

Anyway, the reason I am telling you all this is because today I came across an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the program, in Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Communist Youth.

According to the article, the Castro regime is desperately trying to revive interest in the program as part of its never-ending attempts to ensure younger generations remain alert and committed and true to the revolutionary spirit, blah, blah, blah …

But things are looking grim, it seems, with the paper saying many families are point blank refusing to let their children participate, using suspect medical certificates to get exemptions from school.

Officials blame “over protective” parents.

The truth? Parents are refusing to let their children go to the Escuela al Campo for the very same reasons my mother objected to the idea: the work is hard, living conditions are primitive to say the least, the food is rubbish, transport to get to the mostly-isolated camps is non-existent ... and they fill your head with crap.

Come to think of it, that's a good summary of Cuba over the past 47 years ...


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