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Gracias Cuba … for the Scholarships Too! - August 30, 2004

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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.

Celebration Overshadowed

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 of dollars.

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.

The Stipend

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 changed.

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. Lucia today.

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 area.

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!


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