The transition to online classes for university students and televised classes for K-12 students in the face of COVID-19 on the island has been a new kind of nightmare.
online learning in cuba
The University of Havana. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

As a soon-to-be college graduate, I can personally attest that online classes have not been fun; quite often, they’re nothing short of exhausting (Zoom fatigue is real, mi gente). In Cuba, where even in-person classes are often difficult to carry out, this is especially true. 

“Finishing a university career requires a lot of effort in any part of the world, but in Cuba it’s always three times more difficult,” says Pablo, a recent grad currently serving as a History professor in the Facultad de Ciencias Médicas in Havana.“

“Technology has always presented a challenge.” 

…Cuba’s online infrastructure is relatively young, meaning that the equipment and bandwidth necessary to complete distance learning aren’t easily accessible for the average student, if at all. 

The transition to online classes for university students and televised classes for K-12 students in the face of COVID-19 on the island has been a new kind of nightmare, fraught with logistical and emotional difficulties for both students and instructors. This is mostly because Cuba’s online infrastructure is relatively young, meaning that the equipment and bandwidth necessary to complete distance learning aren’t easily accessible for the average student, if at all. 

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Cuban students often share old PCs, rely on the slow wifi available in campus computer labs or dorms, use print books for research, and download class materials from a flash drive distributed by the professor. As a result, it’s incredibly difficult to complete schoolwork–from regular homework to major assignments like theses–at home. Even programs like Microsoft Word are usually obtained by downloading them from one computer to another, meaning that without in-person classes where those programs can circulate, students have to pay a prohibitively expensive fee to get the necessary applications. While with in-person classes students could handwrite assignments and turn them in directly in lieu of typing and emailing, online classes have eliminated this workaround, leaving many with their hands tied. 

“Online learning in Cuba is pretty new,” says Mario González Rodríguez, a graduate of the University of Havana and a current history professor at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Programa Cuba (FLACSO-Cuba), a regional social science institution with branches all over Latin America. “While other universities in the country had timidly attempted giving classes online, the University of Havana had never before implemented a virtual academic program due to problems of connectivity, access to technology, etc., besides a lack of interest on the part of university administrators.” 

online learning in cuba
University of Havana empty classroom. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

Habaneros in particular were excited when the University of Havana struck a deal with ETECSA, the government-run monopoly on telecommunications in Cuba, to make access to ETECSA services free in wifi parks or through Nauta Hogar, the at-home internet service rolled out in 2016. While this was theoretically helpful in lifting some of the financial burden of online schooling for students and teachers alike, it was in practice helpful only to a select few. 

“…I had to travel 13 km to the city to get online at a wifi park and expose myself [to COVID-19] by going out onto the street.”

Pablo, Recent University of Havana Graduate

“This [deal with ETECSA] was obviously positive in terms of its economic impact on students and professors,” Mario concedes. “But an equally important issue is the availability of electronic equipment among the student body and the faculty. It’s true that today most people have some kind of electronic device like a cellphone, tablet, or laptop, but these are usually not equipped to handle virtual learning because they’re old, or sometimes students live in areas where a mobile signal simply doesn’t exist. ETECSA has in these last few years increased connectivity all over the country, but [the supply] continues to be much lower than the demand.” 

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Pablo agrees, telling me how even when he had access to university computer labs, the machinery available was “practically museum-worthy” and servers were often down for days at a time. He also confirmed the struggles faced by students in rural areas in completing courses at a distance amidst a global pandemic. 

etecsa online learning in cuba
ETECSA is the state owned telecommunications provider for Cuba. Photo: Startup Cuba

“I lived in a rural locality [before graduating], some kilometers away from the city of Pinar del Rio,” he shares. “In that area, the phone signal was very deficient and there weren’t any connectivity points. I had to travel 13 km to the city to get online at a wifi park and expose myself [to COVID-19] by going out onto the street, taking public transport or finding some way to make the trip, on top of investing all my money on recharging my ETECSA internet account.” 

Students in the U.S. can relate to some of the other issues of online classes in Cuba, such as a lack of student-teacher and peer-to-peer interaction, learning curves for older professors using virtual platforms for the first time, and technical problems with the platforms themselves. For example, on the first day of classes this past semester, EVEA–the platform used by the University of Havana–completely crashed

university of havana online learning
University of Havana students. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

“EVEA was already developed [before the transition to online learning], but in practice it was barely utilized,” says Lien Cartaya, who graduated last year with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Havana. “As a result, there were many issues with its programming that had to be resolved.”  

Lien now teaches Calculus to first-year chemistry students while also taking three courses as part of a graduate program in Applied Mathematics. She’s grateful to have finally been able to graduate during the pandemic after months of delays, but like many of her peers, the lack of courses currently available to graduate students and setbacks with the current school year have her feeling stuck. 

However, it hasn’t all been bad; as always, Cubans have found ways to adapt, resolver and make the most of a difficult situation. 

“The classes that I took my last semester of undergrad in Math were the most important, and I’ve had to go over them again as a graduate student,” she explains. “I feel that my preparation during my last year doesn’t compare to that of previous classes.” 

As in the U.S., personal stressors – especially the intensification of food and medicine shortages on the island due to COVID-19 – only add to the frustration of trying to manage online classes in Cuba. However, it hasn’t all been bad; as always, Cubans have found ways to adapt, resolver and make the most of a difficult situation. 

“Some professors have really made an effort to plan class in a similar format to how it would be in person, providing explanations of class materials via Whatsapp and responding to students’ questions,” says Ernesto González Nasco, a now fifth-year student at la CUJAE, one of the country’s most renowned technological institutes. 

Even freshmen have managed to see the positive side of things, telling me that they enjoy being able to complete their schoolwork according to their own schedule. Relatedly, while instructors would rather be in school imparting in-person classes, they hope that the spotlight COVID-19 has put on remote learning in Cuba will lead to the improvement of online learning platforms that can be used more often in the future. 

university of havana online learning in cuba
University of Havana bulletin board. Photo: Gabriela Rivero

However, the degree of positivity regarding distance learning varies by institution and subject. High school language teacher Eddy Deulofeu of Artemisa, for example, worries that his students aren’t getting enough practice or fully understanding concepts with just televised classes and sporadic interactions via Whatsapp group chats. Meanwhile, university students studying hard sciences like Ernesto tend to be more well-versed in online learning due to its heavy integration into the pre-pandemic curriculum, making the transition to full-time distance learning easier than it has been for others. 

“Right now, no one knows when it’ll be possible to return to the classroom,” says Mario. “According to the Cuban authorities, by August the entire island should be vaccinated. If that’s true, all signs point to a return in September or October. Ojalá.”

He can say that again. 

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Gabriela Rivero is a recent graduate of Harvard College with a major in Sociology and minor in Latinx Studies. She comes from a colorful Caribbean (Cuban & Venezuelan) and Mediterranean (Spanish & Italian) background, to which she attributes her love of sunshine and her addiction to guava pastelitos. Gabby uses her English–Spanish bilingualism in her work with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), helping immigrants obtain asylum in the United States. She recently started law school at the University of Miami to become an immigration attorney —shocker!-— specializing in asylum law. She enjoys writing, cooking, singing, and playing tennis and guitar. However, Gabby’s favorite activity is traveling to Cuba, exploring her grandparents’ home country and visiting the friends she made while studying abroad at the University of Havana.

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