One of the educational/cultural activities included in Blonde’s People-to-People trip to Cuba was a visit to the Cuban Literacy Museum. This visit was far enough into the trip that Blonde’s brain (not a total oxymoron) was already skeptically assessing the suspiciously rosy presentations about Cuba’s accomplishments under Castro.
As someone who has a hard enough time believing the politicians in her own country, Blonde couldn’t decide if she was hearing Cuba’s version of Fox news or MSNBC.
And then the visit to the Literacy Museum confused things even further. The woman who spoke to our group, Luisa Campos, had been in Castro’s Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961. She told of how Cuba had a low literacy rate, particularly in rural areas. Literacy jumped from roughly 60% to 70% of the overall population to 96% within less than a year.
The way these figures were derived is a tad sketchy and even somewhat amusing. A census done via personal interviews came up with, among other data, the rate of literacy. And the proof that literacy had been raised so dramatically was that each formerly illiterate person wrote a letter to Castro saying he or she could now read and write!
Not sure that would pass scientific muster now but, skepticism aside, a lot was accomplished in a short time and a unique manner.
Castro came to power in part because he espoused equality among the classes. But, as is true in most countries, there was a dichotomy between literate urban citizens and rural, often illiterate, agriculture workers. To be equal would require that they have a greater understanding of each other and a unified identity as Cubans. Castro also needed to begin to begin to replace the intelligentsia of Cuba who took their brains as well as their money when they emigrated.
So he developed a program that was modeled on previous literacy campaigns in Argentina, Brazil andother parts of Latin America. Per our museum guide, 260,000 “teachers” were created virtually overnight.
The school year ended in April that year and did not resume until November so bright students could be taken from schools and enlisted as teachers for the campaign. (Our museum guide had been one of the school children trained as an instructor.) Of the 260,000 teachers or “brigadistas” 34,000 were actual teachers. They and the others were all trained over a period of 10 days in a very proscribed method of instruction to follow.
Most of the brigadistas ranged in age from 10 to 16 with a few very exceptional ones being only 7 or 8 years old. Although they were from urban areas they were mostly working class as many of the urban wealthy had already left the country.
Parents had to give permission for their children to be sent off as brigadistas but somehow it seems as if saying no might not have been a wise thing to do.
Thirty percent of the brigadistas were black and more than half were women; two groups not traditionally seen as being integral to the success of Cuba. (Sigh #1 – that still sounds familiar and not only in Cuba.)
The guide said that men often “forget” that women really led this movement. (Sigh #2.)
All of a sudden a black 16 year old girl would show up at a 60 year old white farmer’s house to teach him the alphabet and rudimentary literacy. Sort of a variation on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” before it was sent to rewrite. We were told that this was basically accepted and helped to unify Cuba.
For the most part it was one teacher to one student with some cases of a teacher having an many as 5 or 6 students. The farmers, who were most those receiving instruction, had to work during the day and were being taught at night. Even though it was 1961 they didn’t have electricity so kerosene lanterns donated by the Chinese were used for light. (We’re going to assume that illiteracy kept the farmers from despairing that the lamps were made in China.)
Also many would-be students had problems with their vision and had never been able to get eyeglasses. Used glasses were donated by Latin American and other countries and somehow the glasses were distributed and helped many people to at least see better.
At the conclusion of the campaign, after Castro counted all of this letters and realized that the goal had been accomplished, the brigadistas who had been students before being sent out to teach returned to the cities to finish their own schooling.
Those they taught were given the opportunity to continue education locally in the evenings and over one million eventually completed elementary school.
What the museum guide failed to mention was that the literacy program was overtly politicised. It taught a social/political curriculum which included topics such as “Fidel is Our Leader,” “This Land is Our Land,” “Racial Discrimination,” Imperialism,” “International Unity,” and “Popular Recreation.”
Not only a plan to raise literacy it was also a well orchestrated effort to indoctrinate everyone with the messages of the revolution and create a new sense of national unity.
But Brunette, in an annoying effort at fairness, pointed out that our schools in the U.S. were doing the same thing just with different messaging (quite different).
Many who had been teachers prior to the revolution were uncomfortable with the content and censorship of the new program and “retired” early or left the country. More brains going down the drain (mostly to the benefit of the U.S.).
It has been more than 50 years since the Literacy Campaign and Cuba has maintained a high level of literacy.
How that literacy will be factor as Cuba begins to open up to limited private enterprise and citizens gain access to the internet will be fascinating.
Castro may wish he’d just let them keep farming!