Social Justice in the Intersection of History, Culture and Politics: The Universalization of Higher Education in Cuba

Dr. Rosa López-Oceguera

Center for U.S. Studies, University of Havana


The university, as any other institution, emerges in response to a social claim in a determined political context. As an institution dedicated to knowledge search, transmit and advancement, its social tasks has changed alongside history, in correspondence with the changing needs of the concrete society in which is inserted and of which is part.

In the Cuban case, the University of Havana, born as a religious institution 278 years ago and the country’s only university during two and a half centuries, emerged as an answer to the claim of a social sector, that of the moneyed classes, whose children –male, of course- were forced to travel abroad, mainly to Europe, generally to Spain, the metropolis, in order to satisfy their educational needs. The political context in Cuba at this point in history during the third decade of the 18 th Century, was that of a colony of a backward metropolis, marauded in feudal institutions and ways of thinking, with no interest whatsoever in promoting education or cultural development as part of its colonial policy.

It would be, then, the task of the social sectors more interested in the country’s economic development to promote the educational reforms they considered indispensable for the advancement of the society that in the transition from the 18 th to the 19 th Centuries, was immersed in the debate between the lights of the Enlightenment and the shadows of the establishment of a plantation economy and society based upon slave labor.

Once Cuba was able to erect a national project after the triumph of the revolution in 1959, Cuban universities, for they were three at that time, had to overcome many internal obstacles in order to accomplish their social mission. Concentration in so-called ‘liberal professions’, disconnection from production’s problems and society’s needs, reproductive pedagogy, and indifference to scientific research hindered the university-society dynamics required by the social project.

The 21 st Century poses the most difficult challenge to the Cuban university, one that has put maximum tension on its teaching and administrative staff, and on its material resources. To accomplish the political objective aimed at giving the Cuban people a general and integral cultural preparation the university faces the enormous task of universalizing higher education. This social claim emerges from the imperatives of the survival of the Cuban national project in the objective conditions of globalization and in the context of a unipolar international system. But it represents also the opportunity to reach one of the highest aspirations of social justice, with great democratizing implications in theoretical and practical terms for humanistic and scientific knowledge: To make the social universe and the university’s universe coincide.