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Cuba teaches the world to read

Published Jan 7, 2007 8:52 PM

In just 45 years a socialist revolution transformed Cuba from an impoverished U.S. colony to an international educational powerhouse. In 1961, Cuban rural illiteracy was 42 percent. In 2006, UNESCO awarded Cuba for its international literacy program.

On Dec. 22, 1961, the Cuban Revolution marked the successful end of the initial phase of the National Literacy Campaign that brought basics of reading and writing to nearly a million Cubans, many in isolated rural areas. In less than a year’s time an army of 268,420 teachers, new graduates and high and middle school student volunteers laid the foundation for the doctors, clinics and medical schools Cuba shares with the world today. Women comprised more than half of the brigadistas and youth aged 10 to 19 numbered 100,000.

Fidel Castro explained the long range importance of the national campaign that reduced the 42 percent illiteracy rate to

4 percent: “This literacy campaign will give opportunities to those who were denied an education for economic and social reasons. ... They must be helped; they must be persuaded that they can study. Some people at first had bad

eyesight and they got eye examinations and free glasses. There can and must not be any obstacle. ...

“The literacy campaign directly benefits the poor. This is the great injustice which the revolution is correcting. At the same time, it is of vital importance for the country. There can be no progress without education. It is necessary if we are to carry out the great projects in science and the economy, which the revolution plans. If we are to eradicate poverty and raise our living standard, this is necessary.”

In 2006, UNESCO awarded Cuba the King Sejong Literacy Prize for “working through an innovative literacy method with more than 15 countries to use literacy to advance individual and social potential.” Although several other countries were awarded for their internal literacy work, the Latin American and Caribbean Pedagogical University of the Republic of Cuba (IPLAC) received the only award for assisting other countries.

The Cuban “Yo sí puedo” (Yes I can) method combined with the political will of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela recently ended illiteracy there, teaching 1.5 million people to read in two years. In Ecuador several Indigenous mayors adopted the method.

Cuba “implemented the literacy programmes in different social and cultural contexts covering all levels of society including indigenous peoples, those in rural and urban areas, those serving prison sentences, people with special educational needs, migrants, ethnic minorities, at the same time paying special attention to women’s education.” (UNESCO)

Bolivia aims to end illiteracy by 2008 with the support of Cuba and Venezuela. In both rural and urban areas the Aymara and Quechua Indigenous people are learning to read and write in their own languages.

A report to the 14th Summit of the Non Aligned Movement revealed that 2.3 million people in 15 countries, including Mexico and New Zealand, are presently studying under the program. Currently there are requests from Gambia, Nigeria, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, and from the city of Seville in Spain for Cuba to send advisors to start the method.

Although the mass mobilization for the National Literacy Campaign started on April 15, 1961, preparation began earlier. On Jan. 5, 1961, Conrado Benítez García, a young Black man who was one of the early volunteer teachers, and peasant Eliodoro Rodríguez Linares were murdered and mutilated near Trinidad on the south coast of Cuba’s Sancti Spíritus province. The youth brigades named in honor of Conrado Benítez mobilized just days before the direct CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón), an invasion originally planned for the Trinidad area.

The 1961 Cuban school year ended early; it did not resume in the fall until the national literacy campaign was completed in December. Through the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC) 30,000 workers were mobilized to help the campaign without hurting production.

In 1961 Fidel Castro told CTC members in Havana province, “Imperialism offers educational plans to be carried out in 10 years, they claim; but they will not be fulfilled. The Cuban revolution will show that it can be done in one year.”

Some 45 years later, in a country that spends billions to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, Fidel’s words ring true. As school districts across the United States struggle with unfunded mandates for the “No Child Left Behind” program, Detroit has an illiteracy rate of 47 percent. A Dec. 15 U.S. Department of Education press release stated, “The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), released today by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), found little change between 1992 and 2003 in adults’ ability to read and understand sentences and paragraphs or to understand documents such as job applications.”

The National Adult Literacy Survey found a total of 21 to 23 percent or 40 to 44 million U.S. adults, 16 years and older, are at the lowest literacy level; 21 million of those cannot read at all.