The Founding of La Lenin
On the outskirts of Havana, in the Arroyo Naranjo municipality, bordering the Globo ring road, lies the well known Instituto Preuniversitario Vocacional de Ciencias Exactas Vladimir Ilich Lenin (commonly known as “La Lenin”).
Over the years, La Lenin School has signified many things — academic rigor, scientific focus, socialist values, friendships, community and the promise of a better future for its students and the country.
It was born out of a vision of an ideal school that would form the future generations of Cuban citizens. As Fidel Castro articulated in one of his speeches, a school like La Lenin would serve as “… a modern school… a school that would be like a prize, to stimulate those who have worked hard. A vanguard school, a model for the schools of our country’s future.”
At its prime, the school campus included great facilities, including a sports field, Olympic-sized swimming pool, laboratories, accommodation buildings and much more.
Since it was first established in the early 1970’s, many generations of students have studied and lived within its walls. Some families have several generations of parents, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters or cousins who studied and graduated from La Lenin between the ages of 15-18. This was quite evident when four out of the six former alumni I spoke with all had at least one family member attend before or after them.
La Lenin is a pre-university boarding school where students focus on science and technology education. Historically, it has a reputation of being a very competitive elite school where only the brightest and smartest students are accepted. It is notoriously hard to get in, so successfully passing the entrance exams comes with a great sense of pride and achievement
“Everybody inside of Cuba knows what it means to go there. It was considered by many a Cuban elite school…”Jose Rodriguez, Alum
One former alumni, Jose Rodriguez*, 35, who currently lives in the USA, told me: “As I remember, my family was thrilled… I felt like the luckiest guy in the world when I found my name on the list.” Another alumni, Josefina Padron*, 35, who currently lives in Spain, added: “I felt very happy, because La Lenin means a lot for my family, my parents studied there and personally speaking it was a challenge for me to continue this tradition.” Jose explained: “Everybody inside of Cuba knows what it means to go there. It was considered by many a Cuban elite school. Having the name of Lenin school in your resume is often seen as a very positive achievement. Also in the United States when you mention the school some people are very familiar with it and its reputation, especially for those who know Cuba.”
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The reputation of La Lenin also attracted students from outside Havana. Yosué Montes de Oca, 36, who continues to live in Cuba, said he had to wake up at 5 am to make the journey from his neighborhood of San José de las Lajas to get to school on time.
Education at La Lenin
Some academics have studied how schools like La Lenin were founded after the revolution with the purpose of socializing students to become a new type of post revolutionary political subject, which Ernesto Che Guevara referred to as “Hombre Nuevo (New Man); in other words, to become “the children of the revolution” who would have the zeal and commitment to continue building socialism in Cuba.
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Over the decades, it has produced many famous alumni, including comedian Jorge Fernández Era, TV comedian Luis Silva “Pánfilo,“ a member of the famous ‘Cuban Five,’ and the children of many powerful political families.
Other academics have studied how La Lenin specifically reproduced status and privilege through the social and cultural capital that students who attended accrued.
As former alumni, Eric Hernandez* 30, who currently lives in Canada told me: “In my case, getting into La Lenin was a challenging process because my family went through financial hardships in order to pay for extra tutoring to help prepare me for the admission tests — Spanish, history and mathematics… Everyone knew that the regular classes in high school would not give you the training you needed to get in….”
Mónica Rivero Cabrera, 31, who currently lives in Cuba, shared that “there was some kind of ‘special thing’ about being from my school. We used to like to let everyone know we were studying there, because of its prestige. After I left the school I stopped enjoying this kind of “superiority approach” (there must be a better word for it). I think there were good students and good professors in many other places, too; and that there isn’t such a thing as “Lenin exceptionalism.”
Arturo Barea Ferrer, 30, who currently lives in Chile added “people used to see it as a prestigious school so some were very proud, others just used to downplay it because some people thought of the students as a bit nerdy. But ME, I felt like a god while studying there! [Laughs]”
School days were strictly regimented and included regular classes, exercise, and mandatory participation in manual labor a few times a week. But students learnt much more than just scientific and technical knowledge and skills.
According to José, “We had a schedule with alternating morning and afternoon sessions of study, sports, military training and work. After dinner there was time to study, called self-study, from 8 to 10 pm every night.”
Once I got to meet some of them, and to share experiences and laughs with them the magic of the school appeared. It was a marvelous place to share with others, a beautiful age… I always remember living in the dorms, the chats, the studying, the tales and histories, the sharing of food, soap, shoes or whatever was needed. The new and old loves… We were like brothers and sisters.”Arturo Barea Ferrer, Alum
Most boarding students were able to go home on the weekends, but the sense of camaraderie, bonds of friendship and community built amongst classmates who lived and studied together for years was strong and has endured. There are countless alumni groups on Facebook and Whatsapp, and everyone I spoke with shared how some of their best friends to this day are friends they met while studying at La Lenin.
Mónica, who first met her current fiancé at La Lenin 16 years ago, shared: “…we used to have a lot of fun. I learnt how to dance there, and danced as never before or after. I don’t think I have ever talked as much as I did those days…I think I got a piece of an idea of a wide variety of human beings. I learnt what loyalty was, and learnt to be more tolerant and respectful of others… We were discovering and developing our own identities.”
Arturo, whose current roommate is also a former friend from La Lenin shared: “I remembered being overwhelmed with all the people I started meeting, I found them all interesting… Once I got to meet some of them, and to share experiences and laughs with them the magic of the school appeared. It was a marvelous place to share with others, a beautiful age… I always remember living in the dorms, the chats, the studying, the tales and histories, the sharing of food, soap, shoes or whatever was needed. The new and old loves… We were like brothers and sisters.”
When I asked him if he thought La Lenin was the best school in Havana at the time, he said, “I don’t think so, I know so! [Laughs] Best years of my life — really the best!”
At its prime, the school campus included great facilities, including a sports field, Olympic-sized swimming pool, laboratories, accommodation buildings and much more. Pictures from the late 70’s show the bloque central with museum-style displays for biology class, a big library, big gym, language classes (“el laboratorio de idiomas”), and even an athletic “factory.” Those were the heydays of La Lenin. Over the years the school campus changed a lot.
As Monica recalled: “We went through a major maintenance process of the school, when I was in 10th grade (2005). For that reason we spent some weeks out of those buildings, in another boarding school closer to the city. Before those renovations, the school looked old but there was a certain atmosphere around it. Maybe what we call today “vintage.” Afterwards, there was air conditioning in every room, and the school was renovated. We had new bathrooms, WC, painted walls, nice gardening… Sadly most of the labs continued to look abandoned. We loved the open spaces, parks, squares, football fields, pool areas, etc.”
Arturo added: “It was a 1-km long campus, with interconnected buildings, usually painted in white and blue. When there were students, the halls were full of life, it wasn’t difficult to find some friend around. Lots of laughs, jokes, games in small groups of students. Vast terrains to practice sports, walk and chill.”
Besides the students’ relationships and the campus environment, teachers were also integral to the experience that students had. It was a happy coincidence that José, Josefina and Yosué all had the same favorite teacher.
“I believe what made that school so special was the quality and human kindness of those professors,” says José. “Rosa Alicia spent 3 years teaching us math and was also in charge of our group, Grupo 33… She always looked out for us to achieve our full potential.” Josefina adds, “She was a special woman, who knew a lot and most importantly she enjoyed teaching, and when I was sitting in her class I could feel that.”
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“In terms of learning, I think the most important were those things related to daily routines,” Josefina adds. “Of course the academic knowledge I learned there was very important for my future studies, but there are other aspects of my behaviour and thoughts which come from that school, and I appreciate them a lot.”
Deterioration and Decline
Over the decades, La Lenin’s modern facade and overall student experience has deteriorated. A lack of maintenance has caused extensive structural damage, so much so that two years ago a few of the buildings were closed down permanently. In 2018, one report cited that out of six buildings, only two were in use, but had serious water and sanitation problems.
Some reports state that the school continues to be open, although it has a much smaller student population than it used to — approximately 1,000 versus the 4,500 it used to have.
Eric explained: “I remember the government used the school for some other government programs. For example, when Cuba and Venezuela started their medical cooperation program the school underwent renovation not to give students better facilities but to be used as residential facilities for the patients that came from Venezuela. At that time ¼ of the living space and facilities were used exclusively for this program. The interesting thing is that the facilities that were used for this program were the only ones that were renovated, the students did not see any improvement in the classroom, dormitories, dining room or sport areas…”
In recent years, pictures circulating on social media show the extent of the deterioration and some media channels have published various video reports on the state of the school campus.
Closing or Not?
Due to the lack of maintenance and investment, there is some confusion about how the school is operating and whether it is completely closed.
Some reports state that the school continues to be open, although it has a much smaller student population than it used to (approximately 1,000 versus the 4,500 it used to have) and that students study in other school buildings in the municipality.
“As far as I am concerned the school is not closing,” said Mónica. “The Ministry of Education said it was reduced and some of the buildings would be devoted to another institution. Still, it was sad news for all of us, because that school’s strong identity is very space-related, space-linked. The fact that it deteriorated so much over the years was almost unbelievable. It takes a huge amount of abandon to get there. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw pictures a couple of years ago.”
“Many teachers decided to leave the school not only because of the low pay but because the direction the school was taking did not resonate with the idea that it was created for.”Eric, La Lenin alum
Eric added: “Many teachers decided to leave the school not only because of the low pay but because the direction the school was taking did not resonate with the idea that it was created for. Then we started to see less funding and programs such as music, theater or even sports were suspended. Then the living conditions were so bad that actually it was not safe to have students living in the residence. On top of that, the school couldn’t afford to feed the students so at some point in recent years they decided it was no longer going to be a boarding school any more, just a day school.”
“Now that it might be closing, it feels like an important part of Cuba is gone,” said Arturo.
But Jose brought up a different point: “as disappointing as it is to hear, it was very expensive to keep that school running. I would have liked it to remain the same and keep its reputation but that was unquestionably impossible. I think perhaps it might be better to distribute those resources in all the schools in the country and improve the education system for everybody.”
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While La Lenin school might not be completely closed down, the way it currently operates is completely different. It is definitely no longer the elite, idyllic boarding school that it used to be.
Images of the deteriorated campus and reduced educational offerings sadden alumni but the strong and positive impact that the school had, while it was still in its prime, on the lives of countless students and families is undeniable.
The feelings of community and enrichment that are often associated with time spent at La lenin continue to live on through the memories and strong friendships that continue today, both in Cuba and amongst the Cuban diaspora.
Despite the current sad and decaying chapter in La Lenin’s evolution, the school continues to occupy a special place in Cuba’s educational history and the hearts of former alumni. All the alumni I spoke with shared that many of their best friends are still friends from their La Lenin years — regardless of where they currently live around the world.
*not real name, pseudonym used