Cuba's campaign for literacy

Issue 

REVIEW BY TYRION PERKINS

PictureIn the Spirit of Wandering Teachers: the Cuban Literacy Campaign, 1961
Edited by Alexandra Keeble
Ocean Press, Melbourne, 2001
$24.95

In the Spirit of Wandering Teachers is a poster-size book that celebrates the 40th anniversary of Cuba's literacy campaign. In both English and Spanish, each double-page spread contains pictures and information about the most successful literacy campaign in history.

The book outlines the Cuban revolutionaries' views on education from the time of Jose Marti, for whom literacy and education were an essential part of the independence struggle against Spain.

Education was also conducted by the July 26 Movement rebel fighters, even as they waged their revolutionary war against the US-backed Batista dictatorship. When the rebel army finally defeated Batista in 1959, more than a million Cubans were illiterate.

In September 1960, Fidel Castro boldly declared to the United Nations that within one year Cuba would eradicate illiteracy among its citizens. In the Spirit of Wandering Teachers describes this mass campaign.

More than 100,000 school children volunteered to teach. Around 280,000 volunteer literacy teachers went to all parts of the country to teach reading and writing. The teaching manual, Venceremos, was not like most text books. It used phrases like “The campesinos now at last are owners of the land” and “United we shall overcome aggression”.

The book shows that deep links between the young students and the peasants were forged.

During this time, the US sponsored the failed counterrevolutionary invasion at the Bay of Pigs. However, roving bands of contras understood the importance of the literacy campaign and attacked the volunteers and their students. The book lists those martyred during the campaign.

The celebrations that marked the literacy campaign's great success, lowering illiteracy to 4%, are documented. In 1964, a UNESCO report also declared the campaign a success, however UNESCO refused to distribute it.

In the Spirit of Wandering Teachers conveys the emotion and political spirit that made the literacy campaign so successful. It succeeds in communicating its importance, the innovative methods used and the feelings of those involved. It makes you realise how much more is possible when problems are tackled by a politically empowered people. This book is a celebration of an important year in the history of the Cuban Revolution.

From Green Left Weekly, July 17, 2002.
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