Everyone in Cuba Wants to Learn English / Iván García
Ivan Garcia, 3 February 2017 — It’s raining cats and dogs in Havana and
the Weather Institute announces a moderate cold front on the west of the
island. Like any weekend, after lunch people gather in front of the TV
to watch a Spanish football game, a Hollywood film pirated by the Cuban
state, or a soporific Mexican soap opera offered by the semi-clandestine
On Sunday, a day of general boredom, many Havanans sleep in or kill the
boredom drinking the cheapest rum. But Sheila doesn’t allow herself this
“luxury.” She looks at the overcast sky and curses her bad luck.
“I have an appointment in the afternoon with a Chinese customer who
invited me to dinner and later we’ll have a drink. The guy “looks like a
flower pot” (has money). The bad weather makes me want to say ’fuck
it’,” comments Sheila, a hooker, while looking at her watch.
How do you talk to a Chinese man? “In English of course, throwing in a
little Italian and six of seven phrases in Mandarin that I learned on
the internet. In the end, I say a hundred dollars a night, or I love
you, and it’s not very complicated in any language,” she adds, laughing.
Like Sheila, thousands of Cuban prostitutes learn the basics of foreign
languages. In particular English, which in the last ten years has grown
spectacularly in Cuba.
English schools, private or state-run, are multiplying in Havana. In the
municipality of Diez de Octubre alone, one of the most populated on the
island, there are around 60 English schools.
There is English a la carte. For every taste. From classes in state
institutions that cost 20 Cuban pesos to sign up, to private
air-conditioned schools with the newest methods of teaching children,
young people and adults.
In some of them, like Britannia or America, you learn to speak the
language of Shakespeare in the British or US version. “Including turns
of phrase frequently sued in New York or the Spanglish spoken in Miami,”
says Diana, a teacher at the America school.
Enrollment in the best private schools costs between 20 and 30 Cuban
convertible pesos (CUC), the entire monthly salary of a professional.
And each class is between 10 and 18 CUC.
Increasingly, children between 5 and 12 are registered by their parents.
“Mastering English is imperative for the future that is coming our way.
In my case, our family is thinking of emigrating. And if my children
speak English the way is already paved for them,” says Carlos, father of
two children who are studying English.
Technical, intensive or personalized English classes are also offered.
Betty, 32, is waiting for a work permit for Canada. “Twice a week I take
intensive classes, the teacher teaches me personally and it’s very
helpful, I pay 35 CUC a month, but if I go to his house it’s a little
Havana’s marginal fauna, of course, doesn’t want to be left behind. With
the increase in visitors and tourists, especially in the capital — a
little more than 4 million in 2016 — there is an opportunity for
hookers, informal guides, and illegal or clandestine sellers of
handicrafts, works of art and tobacco.
Even those who sell cocaine, marijuana or psychotropic drugs need basic
english, because “a little Italian or French, sure, but if you don’t
speak any foreign language, you’re out of luck in this business,” says a
guy who sells melca in the old part of the city.
Let’s call him Josuan, a sturdy guy, not very tall, who considers
himself a perfect joker. “I go all the way. I sell tobacco, work as a
guide, go to bed with the ladies. The problem, man, is getting some
money. And if you have your wits about you and the tourists like you,
you get it. But you have to know how to start a conversation in English
or some other language. This creates empathy with your customer.”
Learning English is all the rage in Cuba. The military junta that
governs the island has recognized it as a priority of the state. In an
article on the changes in higher education in Cuba, published in Weekly
Progress, the journalist Nery Ferreria wrote, “One of the most
disturbing measures for many is the requirement to demonstrate a mastery
of English, as an ’independent user’ before graduating from the university.”
And she mentions that Rodolfo Alarcon, in his time, before he was ousted
at Minister of Higher Education in July of 2016, said that there had to
be a resolution to “the problem that the Cuban professional is not
capable of expressing themselves in the universal language of our times.”
In her article, Ferreira includes two comments left on the official
Cubadebate website. “Start with English from elementary school and solve
the deficit of teachers in this subject and then the mastery of the
second language will be a done deal,” said a reader. While another
added, “Why ask for what hasn’t been taught all these year. Now we want
to demand it without having a base, or worse, that the parents have to
pay for private lessons, which are very expensive.”
English is well-received in Cuba, especially now that the regime sighs
about doing business with the Yankees. It doesn’t matter if the
interlocutor is a caveman Donald Trump-style. “Business if business,
man. Whoever the person. If you have the ticket, let the dog dance,”
stresses René, who sells Cuban cigars on the black market.
And this is the Cuba of the 21st century, blurring ideology. From
Socialism or Death to the death of Fidel Castro to Welcome Yankees as
the national slogan.
No one wants to be left behind. Not the state businesses, nor the
private ones nor the underworld. Everyone wants to speak English! [in
English in the original]
Translated by Jim
Source: Everyone in Cuba Wants to Learn English / Iván García –
Translating Cuba –