Conversations with Cuba: The Absurdity of Student Debt

By Ricardo Fuentes-Ramirez

I recently returned from a trip to Cuba, and among the most notable conversations I had was one with a Paladar owner and waiter. Paladares are private restaurants, usually family-run, which although once prohibited, were allowed during the Cuban Special Period crisis. I was a bit lost in western Havana, and ended up having lunch in this slightly over-priced restaurant. Due to the ambiance of the restaurant, I assumed the owner and workers were critical of the Cuban system, and would no doubt favor some sort of transition towards American style capitalism.

Upon hearing I was currently an economics student in the U.S., the waiter asked how student loans worked in the American system. I explained the U.S. is currently facing nothing less than a student debt crisis, where the vast majority of students graduate with some level of debt, the average level of debt has consistently been rising, many graduates struggle to find employment, and thus defaults on these loans have also been rising. The waiter asked if even doctors and lawyers faced this problem. I explained students who decide to study law, medicine, or go to graduate school also face the same dilemma, with total debt sometimes going over $100,000, and taking decades to payoff (if  you manage to pay it off).

The waiter called the restaurant owner so he could hear as well. Their reaction was very surprising. They cried out “You see! Our youth needs to hear these stories. Things are worse over there!” Cuba, despite being a poor Caribbean island whose economy is burdened by a brutal economic blockade imposed by the U.S., has managed to develop one of the best education systems in the world, which is completely free at every level of instruction. As a result, the Cuban population is among the most educated in the world. According to the U.N. Human Development Report, Mean Years of Schooling in Cuba was at 10.2 years in 2012, whereas the average for High Human Development countries was 8.1 years. The Cuban health system has had similar results. In fact, the Human Development Report’s Health Index (calculated using Life expectancy) places Cuba (0.912) even above the U.S. (0.907) in 2013. One can only imagine what the Cuban system could achieve if the blockade were to be lifted.

The Cuban experience should be a reminder that free and accessible health or public education are not unrealistic goals. In fact, they are quite the opposite. See more on the feasibility and desirability of free higher education in Anastasia Wilson’s article: “Can Higher Education Be Free?”



One comment

  • I enjoyed your post. However, I thought it might be fair to note a few points of interest. First, despite the student debt crisis (and it is a crisis), the U.S. is #5 overall out of 187 nations listed on the Human Development Report. Cuba is #44. The expected years of schooling in the U.S. is still a full year higher than in Cuba. And a .005 difference in mean life expectancy is unlikely to be statistically significant, so it would probably be more accurate to note that Cuba and the U.S. are tied on the health index rather than stating that Cuba is “above” the U.S. Lastly, the the blockade has certainly unfairly and substantially dampened Cuba’s economy, it’s also true that Cuba has made some poor economic decisions (starting with mismanagement of farming co-ops back in the 60s).

    All that said, I think you make good points: we should life the embargo. And we should solve the student debt crisis.