Rebel Literacy: Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign – by Mark Abendroth

Confidence in neo-liberalism has been seriously shaken by the worldwide financial crisis and so it is a good time for re-appraising Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign in 1961 and determining what can be learned from it regarding an alternative model for human development. The Literacy Campaign has been studied before, but Mark Abendroth uses a new analysis based on his theory of critical global citizenship.

The Literacy Campaign is undeniably among the world’s greatest educational accomplishments of the 20 th century. Before the Campaign almost a million Cubans lacked basic schooling due to race, class, gender and geographical isolation. A total force of 308,000 volunteers worked with 707,212 illiterate Cubans and helped achieve a first grade level of reading and writing. Cuba’s overall illiteracy rate was reduced from over 20% to 3.9% in just one year.

Volunteers included popular educators, workers from factories and 100,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 who carried in their knapsacks a pair of boots, two pairs of socks, an olive-green beret, a blanket, a hammock, a lantern, and copies of a teacher’s manual and a student primer). The volunteers lived and worked with their students during the day and taught them in the evening. This Campaign broke down barriers between urban and rural areas and challenged discrimination against women and Black people. Red flags were hung over doorways signalling Territories Free of Illiteracy. The end of the campaign was celebrated on 22 December 1961 with a Rally of the Pencils outside the National Library at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana.

An understanding of the Cuban Revolution and its Literacy Campaign requires a careful study of Cuba’s long history of struggles against colonialism, slavery and illiteracy. Abendroth traces this history back to Cuba’s first revolutionary Hatuey, the Taino warrior who led a resistance against Spanish invaders in 1510. Cuba’s First War of Independence started on 10 October 1868 and freedom fighters such as Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Maximo Gomez and Antonio Maceo paved the way for Cuba’s most celebrated national hero, Jose Marti, and his struggle for Cuban and Latin American independence. Spanish colonialism was replaced by US neo-colonialism in 1898 and the legacy of this still exists today in the US military base at Guantanamo Bay.

The triumph of the Revolution in 1959 built on these early struggles for independence and Fidel Castro was the latest in a long line of freedom fighters. The seeds of the Literacy Campaign were sewn by the Rebel Army which conducted literacy drives, initiated by Che Guevara. After Batista was ousted in January 1959 the new government began to formulate the National Literacy Campaign early in 1959. Education and ideas would become the primary weapons for defending the Revolution.

Military barracks were converted into schools and 10,000 new classrooms were opened. The Agrarian Reform Law was implemented in June 1959 and campesinos suddenly became owners of the land they worked. Foreign owned factories were nationalised and this put Cuba on a collision course with the US who imposed a trade blockade on the island which exists to this day despite annual UN resolutions, carried by huge margins, calling for it to be lifted. The US backed an attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 and this led Castro to declare the socialist nature of the Revolution, which was increasingly influenced by Soviet and Chinese thinking. Abendroth reminds us of the importance that Lenin and Mao attached to education in the building of socialism.

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The National Literacy Campaign took place at a critical stage of the Revolution when Cuba was faced by increasing US hostility and the threat of invasion. It is argued that the Campaign succeeded in 1959 because it followed the Revolution’s 1959 triumph. Conversely, the Revolution likely would not have survived without the success of the Literacy Campaign. On 26 September 1960 Fidel Castro made the following promise at the UN in New York: ‘In the coming year, our people intend to fight the great battle of illiteracy, with the ambitious goal of teaching every single inhabitant of the country to read and write in one year.’ The Cuban government declared that 1961 would be the Year of Education.

On 5 January 1961 counter-revolutionaries assassinated Conrado Benitez, an 18 year old volunteer teacher in the mountainous Escambray region. Before long, all literacy instructors who left their homes to teach in rural zones became known as Conrado Benitez brigadistas. The National Literacv Commission had four departments ? Technical, Publicity, Finance and Publication ? which worked together to support the volunteers and manage the logistics of the campaign. The manual Alfabeticemos and the primer Venceremos (We will triumph) were the central texts of the campaign. They were tools for literacy instruction and also civics textbooks for the Revolution. Themes of nationalism and internationalism together supported the growing idea of a critical global citizenship.

The Conrado Benitez brigadistas had an average age of 15. They were given seven days training before embarking on their journey to a remote rural region. Over 105,000 instructors had been trained by August 1961. But between July and August a census identified that there were 250,000 more illiterate people than had initially been estimated at the start of the campaign. More instructors were recruited into what became known as Homeland or Death brigades, named after a slogan coined by Fidel Castro. On 5 November Melena del Sur became the first municipality to declare itself free of illiteracy. Tragically, another young teacher, 16 year old Manuel Ascunce, was murdered on 26 November together with the father of his host family, Pedro Lantigua. Like Conrado Benitez, Ascunce became a martyr who inspired Cubans to finish the work of the campaign.

Over 1.25 million Cubans participated in the Campaign either as an instructor or student. Abendroth identifies three themes which ran through the campaign and which are central to his focus on critical global citizenship: civic engagement of youth; popular education; and critical global education. Many of the Cubans who Abendroth interviewed spoke passionately of their sense of global citizenship while remembering their work as instructors or students in the campaign; and it is the testimony of these Campaign participants which forms the most powerful chapter of the book. Here are just three statements, from the many which Abendroth quotes, which sum up the Campaign and its legacy:

‘When I was 17, I couldn’t read or write. When my children were 17, they had finished high school. My daughter is an economist.’

‘Socialism has given us life and has taught us that with work and struggle we can live well with all that we need.’

‘The Literacy Campaign helped instil in me a sense of solidarity with other people.’

This is the essence of critical global citizenship. There are many global problems that will not be resolved until a critical mass develops a conscience of them and a political will to mobilise against them. The Literacy Campaign was one of the greatest achievements of the Revolution. It enabled the development of a free education system, from nursery schools to universities. Everywhere in Cuba there are school buildings and education centres which can be identified by a bust of Jose Marti which stands outside of them. The Literacy Campaign also enabled the development of a thriving publishing industry in Cuba, which is unique among developing countries. This, in turn, enabled book shops to sell books at very affordable prices and there is a passion for books and reading in Cuba which is evident at the annual International Book Fair held in Havana. The Literacy Campaign also enabled Cuba to develop a comprehensive network of public libraries, which are the envy of many developed countries.

The Cuban people have become critical global citizens who will never again be easily subjugated by neo-liberalism or by any other nation. A Battle of Ideas is the latest phase of the Revolution to engage young people in the construction of socialism. Cuba is a giant school in which learning goes far beyond the four walls of a school. Participatory democracy is a reality in Cuba through a local, municipal and national electoral system known as Poder Popular. Cuba continues to send thousands of doctors and teachers to countries in need, and the Yes I Can literacy teaching method has been adopted by 15 countries and has been recognised by UNESCO.

The Literacy Campaign made all of this possible; and the Literacy Campaign was made possible by the Revolution. But the Revolution is still threatened by US aggression, which continues under the Obama administration. Abendroth concludes by setting us all a challenge to sustain the Cuban Revolution and become critical global citizens: ‘People around the world can be moved to pressure the US government to end the blockade and to let Cuba live in peace. This is a worthy project for critical global citizens.’

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