Gracias Cuba … for the Scholarships Too!
Hello St. Lucia,
Last week, the Cuban Embassy observed the 15th anniversary of formal relations
between St. Lucia and Cuba with a photo exhibition at the Castries City Hall.
Actually, diplomatic contacts were established soon after Independence in 1979,
but direct people-to-people relations began long before that.
Indeed, St. Lucians have been going to Cuba long before the 1959 Revolution that
brought Fidel Castro to power. Our forefathers travelled to Cuba in the early
part of the 20th Century to work on the Cuban sugar plantations. Their
descendants continue to live in Cuba. So much so, that there are many
grandparents and other aged relatives of St. Lucians who have been
re-establishing contacts with their St. Lucian roots, both independently and
with the help of the Cuban and St. Lucian governments.
Friendship Not For Sale
I took the
opportunity at the opening of the exhibition to re-iterate that St. Lucia’s
friendship with Cuba is not for sale and that Cuba is a member of our Caribbean
family. Our geography, our history, our shared passion for a fair and just
world, binds us together. I reminded the audience that Cuba defended us in the
banana dispute with the United States. Cuba often berated those Latin American
countries who were determined to annihilate the banana industry of the Windward
Islands. Cuba has always fought for the poor and the oppressed. It is a country
that understands sacrifice. In the process, it has stood tall, proud and most
times alone, reminding the world that there is no price for a people’s dignity.
As you will have realised, the celebration of 15 years of formal relations with
Cuba was regrettably overshadowed by attempts to encourage controversy over the
government’s decision to implement a loan scheme to finance the provision of
passages and monthly stipends for our students in Cuba.
Let us put the issues in perspective.
Number of Scholarships
In the past, very few students studied in Cuba. Under this administration, there
are over 240 students currently studying in Cuba. Of that amount, 170 receive
stipends from the Government of St. Lucia. These students study subjects ranging
from Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, and Biochemistry to Agriculture, Agronomy,
Architecture, Engineering, Forestry, Telecommunications, and Physical Education.
At the end of their five or seven years of study, these students will return
home as graduates. For example, in the field of medicine, 20 will return as
doctors in 2005, another 10 in 2006, 14 in 2007, 8 in 2008, 3 in 2009 and
another 3 in 2010. So, over the next six years, a total number of 58 St. Lucians
will return home as doctors, having been trained in Cuba.
In effect, St. Lucia will be self-sufficient in doctors. Some of those graduates
may well have to utilise the opportunities provided by the Single Market and
Economy and seek employment elsewhere in the Caribbean Community.
Not About Educational Costs
University education, as we all know, is not cheap. It comes at a high price.
The average student paying for a university education at the University of the
West Indies (UWI), in the UK, the USA or Canada has to find thousands of dollars
to finance his or her university education. That money invariably would have to
be borrowed from a bank or some other financial institution. The Government
helps by making the loan facilities available, paying economic cost at UWI for
some students and for others in the Public Service, meeting the cost of study
leave with pay. When the government agrees to provide study leave with pay, it
also has to pay the cost of the replacement of the person on leave.
The Cuban scholarship programme is aimed at helping developing countries. The
programme was originally designed for the sons and daughters of the poor, of
people whose children have the academic ability but who could not afford to pay
for their tertiary education. This programme began soon after the Cuban
revolution and has continued throughout the years. Even after the collapse of
the Soviet Union when assistance from the socialist community disappeared and
the United States tightened the embargo against Cuba, the Cuban government
decided to maintain its policy of providing scholarships to students from
developing countries. Today, I am advised that there are over 17,000 students
from 98 countries around the world pursuing free university education in Cuba,
Some 3,000 are from Caricom states and St. Lucia has approximately 240 of those.
The annual costs, which are borne by the people of Cuba, must amount to millions
In the case of St. Lucia, as I have had to remind the press last week, the
Government of St. Lucia has never had and still does not have to pay any costs
to the Government of Cuba for the university education of our students. The
students do not have to pay any costs to the Cuban government. Consequently, the
students and their parents have to pay no school fees, no boarding and lodging
and no meals. Of course, I am by no means suggesting that student life in Cuba
is a bed of roses.
It is this government which dramatically increased the number of students in
receipt of scholarships in Cuba. The former government had little interest in
the Cuban scholarships. A few years ago, this Government introduced a monthly
stipend of US$200 per student, much to the discomfort of the Cuban government.
The Cuban authorities pointed out that Cuban Professors were, in some cases,
paid salaries lower than the US$200 stipend which the students received. It did
not help that some students were alleged to have flaunted their stipends. Cuban
students were said to be resentful because their country was sacrificing to
provide scholarships and our students enjoyed privileges which they were denied.
The Cubans asked a simple question: How is it that we are sacrificing to give
you scholarships, yet you are providing generous stipends to your students? The
Government obliged and reduced the stipend to US$100 per student, per month. To
this day, the Cuban Government is unhappy about the stipends, since, in their
view, the Cuban Government meets the basic costs of the students.
Providing an Alternative
In this year’s budget presentation, I announced that a loan scheme would be
introduced this year to finance students in Cuba. Government decided that it
would not be just, to simply withdraw the stipends without notice or without
providing an alternative for the students. Consequently, the Government of St.
Lucia worked out an arrangement with the Bank of St. Lucia for the establishment
of a Student Loan Facility that will give those who wish to go that route the
possibility of taking a loan. This decision regarding the withdrawal of free
stipends only takes effect immediately in the case of the new students going to
Cuba this year. For the larger number already studying in Cuba, it will not take
effect until August 1, 2005 – that is, a year from now.
The Terms of the Loans
The conditions for the loans are not onerous. Unlike the loans financed by the
Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and administered by the Bank of St. Lucia, the
students who apply for loans to a maximum of $49,140 are not required to provide
a guarantor or collateral such as property as security. All they provide is a
personal guarantee and an agreement to allow deductions from their salaries when
they graduate and become employed. Further, the Government of St. Lucia has
entered into a guarantee arrangement with the Bank of St. Lucia to safeguard the
risks that the bank has assumed. How then could these terms be described as
callous or heartless, moreso by individuals who made little use of offers by the
Cuban government when they were in office?
Neither Onerous Nor Burdensome…
I have heard all the commotion, the complaints and protests by some of the
students. I know that the students met recently with representatives of the
Ministries of Education and Finance, as well as with a representative of the
bank. I publicly stated last week that I will review the outcome of that meeting
and I will take everything into account and the Ministry of Finance will work
with the bank to ensure that the conditions for the loans, and in particular the
insurance component, are not onerous or burdensome to the students. However, the
loan facility will remain.
A Deeper Issue
There is, however, a deeper issue at stake. A Government has a responsibility to
ensure fairness and equity in its policies. No other category of University
student receives a free stipend from the Government. Aren’t other students
entitled to demand a stipend too?
Consider this. Here we have some students – not all -- who have scholarships,
paid for by the Cuban people, worth over EC$200,000 complaining about financing
pocket change and an airline ticket, when there are so many other young St.
Lucians who have had to secure similar amounts by way of loans to study at the
UWI, or in the UK, USA or Canada.
The argument that all the students on Government scholarships are from poor
families and so should be treated differently is fallacious and dishonest. Some
awardees certainly come from poor families, but not all. Government scholarships
are awarded on a competitive basis, so whether you are poor, middle class, black
or brown, you have an opportunity to be awarded a scholarship. Times have
It is my hope that I have been able to shed light on this issue, which has
unfortunately been allowed to cloud what should have been more of a celebration
of our fraternal thanks to our Cuban brothers and sisters for the solidarity
they have continued to offer to St. Lucia and to Caricom, through thick and
thin, not only over the past 15 years but for three decades.
Vive La Woz!
Cuban scholarships apart, I note that today is also an important day on our
cultural calendar. Today, Monday, August 30th, is La Rose Day, when the first of
our two flower festivals is celebrated. The sweet sound of “La Woz” music has
been filling the air for two weeks and there will be celebrations all over St.
I am proud of the manner in which we have successfully preserved our cultural
traditions and this is seen in the way “La Woz” has become more accepted
nationally than it was 25 years ago. I hope each and every one of you take time
out to participate in or go out and see the La Rose festivities closest to your
Until next Monday, I salute you. And to all St. Lucians at home and abroad, in
our true native tongue, I say to you: VIVE LA WOZ!