Welsh Education Minister meets Fidel
By Derek Davies of Cymru Cuba
In February, Jane Davidson AM, Labour Minister for Education in the National Assembly for Wales, spent four days in Cuba opening links between higher education in Wales and Cuba and meeting with Fidel Castro in the process.
“I already knew literacy and numeracy in Cuba were particularly good, and I was interested in their support for the early years”, the Minister commented. While visiting the island on holiday last year, Ms Davidson had met the Cuban Deputy Ministers of Education and Higher Education.
She said “in my meetings it became clear that there were lots of areas on which we could work together. They were facing similar challenges in terms of how you give rural schools the greatest opportunity in educating young people, they were looking at putting televisions into every school, they were looking at setting up a new Cuban education television channel...”. In response to Cuban interest in signing a Memorandum of Understanding, Ms Davidson proposed to consult with higher education institutions in Wales and to return to Cuba in March for the Conference of the University in the New Millennium.
Universities in Wales expressed interest in the conference after a visit to Wales by the Cuban Minister of Higher Education, and representatives of the Universities of Swansea and Glamorgan and of the Welsh College of Music and Drama attended the conference with the Assembly Education Minister. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed in Spanish, Welsh and English. It provides for officials in Wales and Cuba to liaise over link opportunities, and already the Welsh universities have come back with specific projects. As Jane Davidson explained, “...the links will be between institution and institution, although we’ll keep a weather eye on it from government so that it is a living memorandum, not one that sits on the shelf, and the same thing will happen in Cuba.” The links will be within a framework of “doing projects together and finding ways of facilitating exchanges and opportunities for learning from each other.”
The Welsh delegation’s experience of the conference was very positive, as Ms Davidson described - “[They] were obviously incredibly enthused by their experience there. It turned out the conference was some 30 countries and 1500 delegates, so I think it exceeded our hosts’ expectations as well ... I was given the opportunity on the last day to sign the memorandum and make a speech in one of the workshop sessions. That was the plan I came over to Cuba with, and then it all changed ...”
Jane Davidson’s speech attracted a large audience: “...the speech was received very well but I think that was as much to do with the catalyst as my speech. I was incredibly privileged because having met Fidel on the first evening I arrived in Havana and had a chance to talk with him about his vision and my vision of education, I was bowled over when I heard he was prepared to chair my session. So I think I was moved out of a relatively small workshop room and moved into the largest room outside the main conference hall. The room was meant to hold something like 400 but I think it held something like 600 because there was standing room only and a number of people were turned away from hearing the Minister from Wales expound the opportunities of Wales and her commitment to higher education in Wales!”
Jane met Fidel after his speech at the launch of the Havana Bookfair, which she described as a wonderful event with millions of books, happening all over Cuba - “...being Fidel, he never speaks with any notes, it’s all a stream of consciousness speech.” He had spoken of the value of reading, literacy, and education, and how Cuba was a very skilled and educated nation but that that was not enough. “I could have used exactly the same themes in Wales. When I met him I shared the vision of education.” She reported that Fidel is drawing up a list of 25 books to go into Cuban homes, to be produced as cheaply as possible in newspaper copy to give people access to good literature.
The Minister’s final impressions of the conference reflected her recognition of Fidel’s role in mass literacy and numeracy - “They’ve achieved those standards because they have this absolute commitment to education as the means of individual self-development. And because they offer a job to every person, because they offer educational opportunities to every person, there really are opportunities for all.”
The commitment to education follows through to other aspects of society: as Jane Davidson noted, Cuban scientists are at the forefront of work to develop a vaccine for cholera, a disease not even found in Cuba. They have done a lot of work on AIDS in African countries, and the delegation saw work on helping children with very poor hearing. “They were demonstrating the intellectual capital for us to take back and talk to others about,” she observed. It is hoped that the new links between Welsh and Cuban universities will help in this information exchange.
The last words go to Jane Davidson: “I get the feeling that when [Cuba] makes a decision, it just gets on and does it ...in the six months between my holiday visit and my going back formally, they had put televisions in all their schools with the new channel for education.”