In modern Cuba, English is key for success

La Conversación statue in Plaza de San Francisco, Old Havana
La Conversación statue in Plaza de San Francisco, Old Havana (Ilana Marcus/MEDILL)

By Ilana Marcus
Medill Reports

HAVANA – On the top floor of a walkup in the chic Havana neighborhood of Miramar sits the office of entrepreneurship magazine Negolution. Co-founders Marta E. Deus and Rigo García Berriel are young, professional, speak perfect English and look the part of any business owner in a capitalist country.

Except that this is Cuba, where communism reigns and “capitalism” can be a dirty word.

Deus and García founded their magazine a year ago in order to inspire other hopeful innovators to start their own businesses. From the very beginning, every article they ran was published in both Spanish and English, side by side.

“English is the language of business,” said Deus. “We think entrepreneurs should know English.”

Her opinion represents a significant change in attitude towards the study of English in Cuba.

The Cuban government imposed a moratorium, fueled by opposition to the United States, on the study of English in the years following the 1959 revolution. Schools taught other languages, especially Russian, due to the economic and cultural influence of the USSR.

These policies left English literacy in Cuba lagging, even as English became the international language in a globalized world. Now, an evident interest in English language skills may signal an economy turning away from its communist roots and looking to play a greater role on the global stage. As English becomes an increasingly necessary rung on the ladder of prosperity, those without an opportunity to learn may fall behind.

“Everywhere I go, they say, ‘I need to know English, help me learn English,’” said Josefina Saez Acevedo, a Presbyterian mission worker from the United States. Enthusiasm is especially high among people in the health care sector, she said, where opportunities to collaborate with foreign researchers are limited without English skills.

As of this year, English proficiency is a government-mandated graduation requirement for university students. Implementing that standard, however, may be difficult when most Cuban students barely learn English in the standard education system. Although English language study is mandatory starting in grade school, schools facing competition from better-paying private sector jobs are not able to fully staff their classrooms.

“There’s a real lack of teachers at most levels,” said David Napoles, who is studying to become an English teacher himself. He tutors English privately and earns at least twice the average government salary of about $30 per month. He said he does not plan to teach in government schools, partly due to the low earning potential.

Before the 1959 revolution, English was taught at private American and international schools. But following the nationalization of the school system under the leadership of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, English study was frowned upon due to the association of the language with the United States, Cuba’s sworn enemy.

The family of Niria de la Osa illustrates this history. She and her husband learned English prior to the revolution and are fluent. They run a bed and breakfast out of their home in Vedado, an affluent neighborhood in Havana. Their language skills give them access to the tourism industry’s economic opportunity.

Their children and grandchildren, who grew up in post-revolution Cuba, have a much weaker command of the language. De la Osa’s daughter recently moved to Miami, where she struggled to find a technology job because the English she learned in Cuba was inadequate for an English-speaking work environment.

“I’m quite certain that the level of English proficiency on the island is still very low,” said Phillip Carter, a sociolinguist who focuses on U.S. Latino communities in his work at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. “When Cuban exiles come to the U.S., they tend to be Spanish monolinguals.”

Looking to get ahead, some students supplement public school instruction with tutoring.

Posts detailing offers of English lessons are hosted on Revolico, a local website advertising many kinds of services. The price for these lessons depends on the teacher’s skill and experience but often hovers around $1-2 per hour, which is expensive relative to the average government monthly salary. Pirated versions of digital language instruction programs like Rosetta Stone are also advertised on Revolico, listed in one post at $7.

English skills have become more important than ever in the burgeoning tourism industry, where tour guides, taxi drivers, and waiters routinely earn more than doctors and professors. A 2016 Brookings Institute report on tourism in Cuba stated that in 2015, more than one third of tourists came from Canada.

Changes in tourism may be predictive of changes to come in other sectors of the Cuban economy. According to the same report, the private sector took in nearly one third of tourism spending in 2015. A 2018 Brookings Institute report suggested that the model of collaboration between the private sector, state-owned enterprises, and international organizations in the tourism industry could also be applied to other sectors of the economy. Such collaborations may become more common in business, engineering, healthcare and other industries as the private sector matures, creating opportunities that would be limited by lack of English literacy.

The high cost of English lessons means they are affordable only for Cubans who are either already earning a private sector salary or have external income sources, such as support from family members outside of Cuba. Almost two thirds of Cubans receive remittance payments from abroad, according to a 2015 poll run by Bendixen and Amandi in collaboration with the Washington Post.

Barring changes under the leadership that will take office when President Raul Castro steps down this week, the divide between haves and have-nots seems likely to continue to grow as private sector opportunities and the accompanying wages attract workers with essential skills. For Cubans with less money and fewer connections, access to English literacy and a stepping stone to a new Cuban dream may prove to be out of reach.

Photo at top: La Conversación statue in Plaza de San Francisco, Old Havana (Ilana Marcus/MEDILL)