Cuba: What Can the Literacy Campaign Teach Us?

By Iroel Sánchez on December 22, 2021

photo: Liborio Noval

On December 22, 1961, in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, Cuba was declared an illiteracy free territory. The same flag that was raised in every municipality of the island was now raised in the capital, crowning the effort that had culminated in providing 707 thousand Cubans with the ability to read and write in just one year.

A joint force of 121 thousand Alfabetizadores Populares; 100 thousand Conrado Benítez brigadistas; 15 thousand Patria o Muerte brigadistas; 35 thousand volunteer teachers, adding up to 271 thousand educators, plus managers and insurers, made up an army of 300 thousand people, and were the protagonists of a legendary feat that still resounds today.

American threats of all kinds, terrorism, assassinations of teachers and literacy teachers, and even a military invasion, could not prevent such a result. This extraordinary achievement had one ideologue and main victorious animator and that could only be one: Comandante Fidel Castro. Many years later, Gabriel García Márquez would write about his “insatiable illusions” and his inability to “conceive any idea that is not enormous”, both characteristics that may explain how the idea of leaving Cuba without illiterates in just one year could be born.

Sixty years later, the tribute to that feat, to the people of Cuba who played a leading role in it, and to the leadership that led it in the smallest details, also has things to tell us about ourselves, about the methods and paradigms present in such a victory, which may perhaps constitute references for the challenges of the present.

The scale, the whole country and simultaneously, the popular participation, with young people in the front line, the speed that works “for yesterday”, with clear goals, the constant information of the progress, with systematic data on the number of literate people per territory, are some of the elements that made it possible to turn every citizen into at least an active spectator of the campaign.

All this, accompanied by a symbolic world: uniforms, flags, lanterns, anthem… “pencil, booklet, manual” and the involvement of all the actors of society in their different roles, encouraging and supporting the literacy educators.

As an example, suffice it to recall that, at Fidel’s request, the greatest Cuban popular music performer of all times, Benny Moré, went every Thursday -for free and in a disciplined manner- to sing for the literacy teachers who were preparing themselves in the Varadero beach resort.

Once the campaign was over and the eradication of illiteracy was achieved, a permanent conception of continuity in an infinite development promoted an educational Revolution, expanding capacities at all levels of education for children and young people, while developing adult education in successive “battles” for the sixth and ninth grades, and the provision of a consistent publishing production, not only as a basis for education but as a way of access to the broader culture.

It is often said that only the people save the people, and perhaps this has seldom been truer than in those days of 1961. Looking at it from the challenges of the present, in the midst of an unstoppable growth of access to Information and Communication Technologies, full of infinite opportunities but also of risks and manipulations, Cuba’s infrastructure and human resources allow us to propose creative ways to massively prepare the population for these new scenarios, not only as critical receivers but also as active participants.

A system of public media, a universal and free education present everywhere, a system of organizations and institutions at the service of the people cannot fulfill its mission in the face of the challenges of the present without stripping itself of any elitist and technocratic conception, which prevents the people from saving themselves in the face of the new challenges. In the feat of literacy there are many lessons to make this possible.

Source: La Pupilia Insomne