Literacy system fashioned during revolution adopted by many countries


Literacy rates in Cuba remain among the highest in the world, writes HUGH O'SHAUGHNESSYin Havana

IRELAND CAN hold its head up, according to the latest tally by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in its annual international Education for All index.

In a complicated amalgam of four computations – primary education, adult literacy, education quality and gender – the Irish come out in 21st place, ahead of Luxembourg, Greece, Poland and Israel and, of course, soaring above the United States at 33rd.

It must be admitted that Britain, Norway, Italy and Switzerland can hold their heads higher than the Irish on this score as they are all in the first 10. But teachers in Ireland should perhaps ponder the fact that Cuba, having undergone half a century of economic blockade and sabotage by its giant neighbour to the north, which regularly attracts widespread condemnation at the UN Security Council, comes in at 14th, just behind much richer countries such as Spain and Germany. It is seven places above the land of saints and scholars.

The sacrifices that Cubans make for education are enormous but, as a senior member of the government here said, “We are not going to reduce education. In fact we’ve not reduced education at any time since the revolution.”

One could cavil at a politician’s licence. The vast Jesuit school, the Colegio de Belén (Bethlehem College) in Marianao, the airy southwestern outskirts of this city, nearly bankrupted the Society of Jesus in Cuba when it was built in the 1920s.

Fidel Castro was sent there in the 1940s. Later, when he was prime minister of the country,

he handed it over to the armed forces to be turned into a technological centre, which it remains to this day.

Despite this, educational standards have constantly improved since the victory of the revolution was proclaimed in January 1959.

Unesco finds that more than two in every five primary school pupils in Cuba reach the highest grades for reading, a standard twice as high as those of Chile and Mexico, their nearest rivals in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the same time, the Cuban students chalk up the lowest proportion of those at the bottom level.

Not far from the massive bulk of the former Colegio de Belén stands a much more humble edifice, which looks careworn and down at heel today. It is a museum devoted to one of the first achievements of the Castro government: the literacy campaign of the early 1960s.

At the end of the western-supported dictatorship of Gen Fulgencio Batista, when the standard of living on the island was much higher than in many other Latin American republics, there were many Cubans who were unable to read or write.

At the UN General Assembly in September 1960, Fidel Castro announced: “Cuba will be the first country in America which, in the space of a few months, will not have even one illiterate.”

The new government had the idea of mobilising young people – the youngest was less than 10 – to take time out of school and go out and bring literacy to those who had none, especially the country people.

The simple plan was rapidly and efficiently organised, with 120,632 youngsters or brigadistas of both sexes kitted out in a simple uniform and given a rudimentary gas lamp.

In a country full of villages and hamlets in tropical latitudes without electricity where there was not much natural light after six o’clock in the evening, some means of lighting had to be provided for those returning from the fields.

Sadly dozens of these good citizens lost their lives and are remembered at the little museum. They include some who were killed by counter-revolutionaries or terrorists trained abroad.

One was Conrado Benitez, a black teacher who was assassinated and his body hanged from a tree in January 1961 in the Escambray mountains by anti-Castro fighters. He carried no weapon, only three books on anatomy, mathematics and composition. But the brigadistas ploughed on. On December 22nd, 1961, Cuba was proclaimed free of illiteracy with 707,000 people having been taught to read and write over the previous year and only 3.9 per cent of the population still illiterate.

In the first year of the revolution, effort was put into creating a new scheme of free education for all children between six and 15 and 7,000 new teachers were trained. Three thousand schools were built and about 300,000 children went to school for the first time.

Similar literacy schemes have been worked out over the years for many other countries since the early 1960s and notably one called “Yo sí puedo” (“Yes, I can”).

They certainly worked in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela and in Nicaragua.

They have been fashioned in Havana at the Latin American and Caribbean Pedagogical Institute and adopted in 28 countries in Latin America, Africa and Oceania. Last year the city of Seville in Spain was the first local authority in the EU to take the idea up.

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