Reuters International

A poster where English classes are offered is seen at a private house in Havana April 7, 2016. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

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By Diego Oré

HAVANA (Reuters) - Gilberto Gonzalez learnt Russian at a school in Havana at the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union was Cuba's closest ally, but 30 years later he's rusty and remembers little more than, 'da,' and 'nyet.'

Now, as relations thaw with the United States, Gonzalez wants his children to learn English to grasp opportunities arising from Cuba's new closeness to the old enemy. He has ordered them to sign up at a private English school in the city.

"It doesn't matter that it's expensive, but it is what can open doors now what we are starting a new era," said Gonzalez, a 45-year-old civil engineer who has changed jobs and now works as a taxi driver, earning more.

Teaching English has become a minor boom industry in Havana, with dozens of schools opening in private homes in the wake of President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama's December, 2014 agreement to normalise relations.

English has been the most popular second language for many years in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. But the detente has added new impetus and learning the language has won support from the Communist leadership.

"We have to speak English. If you can speak two or three languages, all the better, but English is essential," said José Ramón Machado Ventura, No. 2 in the Communist Party and one of the original leaders of the revolution that defeated a pro-American government in 1959.

The government added English to the list of priorities for schools last year, along with Cuban history and Spanish.

The official embrace of English and the prospect of millions of U.S. tourists coming to the Caribbean island once Washington completely removes travel restrictions have led to a surge of teachers and students.

Classes cost between $10 and $30 a month, in a country where the average state salary is just $25. But a growing number of Cubans are enjoying income from private ventures and from money sent by family members overseas.

Not everyone, however, is happy. Teacher Deisy Perez says her informal school in her Havana home has lost customers as more options open up.

"There's more competition now between the private language schools," said Perez, who has been giving classes for 15 years.

It wasn't always this way. For a period in the 1970s, learning Russian was mandatory for about a third of secondary school pupils.

But even former President Fidel Castro lamented his decision to focus on Russian when the Soviet Union was Cuba's closest ally.

"The Russians learnt English, the whole world learnt English, and we learnt Russian," Castro said in televised remarks last year.

(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Edited by Frank Jack Daniel and Dan Grebler)

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