Fordham University Graduate School of Education dean José Luis Alvarado, Ph.D., received two awards at the Cuba World Association of Stimulation and Child Development World Convention (OMEEDI) and Fourth International Congress of AICIDED: Sport, Science, and Sustainability, for his knowledge and contributions to childhood education. With over 1,000 educators and researchers from Latin America and Spain present, he accepted both the World Childhood Award from the Cuba Association of Stimulation and Child Development and a membership in the Consejo Mundial de Academicos e Investigadores Universitarios (COMAU), World Council of University Academics and Researchers. Held in Varaderos, Cuba, the annual conference took place from October 24th through the 27th. Experts in early childhood development, sports physiology and motor-skills from Cuba, Spain and Latin America alike commune once a year for the event.
What is evident when attending the conference is that education is at the core of Latin American countries’ ideologies, and despite how impoverished some countries might be, they are ahead of the United States observed Alvarado. Most, if not all, of the countries represented at the conference provide early childhood education to every child. “Research shows that high quality educational experiences at a young age and early intervention are key. In this country [United States] we have educational gaps because every child does not have the opportunity to attend an early childhood education program,” remarked Alvarado. Cuba is the perfect example that regardless of resources, a near 100% literacy rate is possible. Prior to the Cuban revolution in 1959, less than half the children had access to an education. When education was nationalized in 1959, and made available to all children, it was the start of Cuba having one of the the highest literacy rate in the world. Beginning in preschool and continuing through graduate and post-graduate studies, education is free. And upon completion of their studies, graduates are assured a position in the workforce.
In acknowledgement of the lack of basic educational resources, conference attendees were asked to pack suitcases of school supplies to donate to classroom teachers and students. We took quite a few Crayola crayons, markers, pens, pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners, and other school supplies. Overall, the conference yielded school supplies that will make many Cuban children and teachers happy. I only wish we could’ve taken more.
More reflections on the conference and life in Cuba by José Luis Alvarado, Ph.D.
During the opening of the conference, the Cuban government invited a significant number of Cuban educators to be present and since government-run news cameras were there to record the event, the number of attendees swelled for the first day. The rest of the conference was attended by fewer Cuban educators, as the majority of participants were educators from other Latin American countries. Because the conference focused on child mobility, sport, and early childhood education, presentations were quite diverse in their topics. Several sessions were especially fascinating, such as the one presented by colleagues from Argentina on the evolution of their nation’s laws to protect and guarantee a public education for individuals with disabilities and a presentation from colleagues from Colombia who shared a case study of a child with autism and their efforts to integrate an exercise program to stimulate social interactions and engagement.
Also attending the conference on behalf of Fordham University was Diane Rodriguez, Ph.D., associate dean of the Graduate School of Education. Rodriguez shared her work on multilingual education being done in Africa. Rodriguez founded the nonprofit “Every Girl is Important” which furthers girls’ education in Kenya.
Cuba is a land of contrasts and one that makes apparent the ravages of time, scarcity of resources, and political isolation. Due to challenges with transportation and logistics, we lodged in Havana before and after the conference which allowed us to compare and contrast staying at a beachfront resort in Valaderos and in Havana, the nation’s capital.
Whereas the conference was held in a beachfront resort, life in Havana was a stark contrast to the manicured landscape of the resort. Havana is a place frozen in time. Grand colonial buildings that harken better times of the past clearly bear the scars of time. Though some buildings have been maintained, many were mere ruins. American cars from the 40’s and 50’s share the road with Russian-made vehicles and more modern Korean cars. It was interesting to see the pervasiveness of government-sponsored messaging as it was everywhere; omni-present slogans painted in walls, buildings, and banners proclaiming the success of the revolution with a clear message that all Cuban citizens were willing to die for their country; Patria o Muerte! The Cuban people have a vibrant spirit but will readily admit that the global pandemic, the ongoing American embargo, the Russian war against Ukraine, and the global recession have taken a toll on them. Many noted that this is the worst they have experienced with regards to a lack of basic necessities. Because Russia curtailed their petroleum exports to Cuba, gas was scarce. Government-owned gas stations, if they hadn’t run out of gas, usually had a line of cars that were blocks long with no guarantee that those towards the end of the line would be able to purchase any. According to locals, the government-issued food ration for families to survive for the month consisted of a kilo of rice, a kilo of beans, a loaf of bread, a chicken, and six eggs.
The lack of necessities was evident on our day of arrival. While my wife, Patricia, and I waited for our hotel room to be ready, we walked over to the lobby coffee shop to purchase a coffee. We asked if we could purchase a pastry and they noted that they had none. I walked over to the lobby restaurant to purchase said pastry only to be told that they were fresh out of bread. I proceeded to walk out of the hotel and quickly found a bakery across the street. Entering the establishment instantly made me realize how blessed we are in the U.S. The bakery had only three medium-sized baguettes they called, flutas or flutes. That was it, no other bread was available. Later I learned that most of Cuba’s grain comes from Ukraine and since the war started, Cuba has had very few imports of grain which has resulted in a severe bread shortage.
Despite the obvious challenges, the Cuban people were warm, friendly, and exhibited a passion for life. Music and art were evident in most places with many restaurants featuring beautiful music and a friendly atmosphere. We had the opportunity to visit the world-famous Fusterlandia where Cuban artist, José Fuster reclaimed his impoverished neighborhood as a dreamy folk-art kingdom. It is a work in progress as Jose shared with me, a work that he’s been immersed in for well over 40 years. The artist has now trained many of his neighbors to transform their properties using mosaic as the medium of expression and his influence is seen in many houses throughout the neighborhood.
José Fuster and the people of Cuba are proof of the resiliency of the human spirit. Living in difficult conditions, they can thrive and share a joy for life. It is a lesson that all of us who live in the first world can surely appreciate.