Cultural Insurrection: Cuban Literacy at 50

April 2, 2011
Materials from the Cuban "Yes, I Can" literacy teaching method used to fight functional illiteracy.

Five revolutions in postwar Latin America have seen illiteracy as a neocolonial battleground.

Salvador Allende’s Chile — birthplace of How to Read Donald Duck, an iconic attack on cultural imperialism — reduced illiteracy from 15.2% to 6.3% in under two years (1971-73), triple the rate of any regime before or since.

In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas slashed the Somoza dictatorship legacy of 50% illiteracy to just 13% before the end of its first full year in power (1980), catapulting women to cultural and political prominence in the process.

In 1981, popular literacy primers in the Grenadan Revolution emphasised cultural transformation, anti-imperialism and Caribbean unity across the language barriers imposed by 500 years of colonial occupation.

Emphasising gender equality, indigenous autonomy, “education for all” and democratised production, the Robinson Mission reduced illiteracy in Venezuela from 12 to 2.5% in just two years, 2003-2005.

One common thread has been the direct or indirect influence of the Cuban Literacy Campaign (CLC) in 1961, which achieved the feat of eliminating illiteracy in less than one year.

Revolution gave meaning to the struggle for literacy as a process linked to the socialisation of production, greater productive capacity, agrarian modernisation and development of participatory democracy.

The CLC also represented a major de-colonisation process, wherein popular culture overthrew imposed Yankee mass culture.

By 1953, Fidel and Che had begun literacy lessons for the guerilla army and its supporters in the Sierra Maestra.

Even under Spanish occupation, 19th century workers had won the right to a full-time reader, symbolically seated above and reading to the labourers in cigar factories.

These literacy crusades were run with military precision by teacher-brigades (”brigadistas”), often under conditions of civil war or its aftermath; the pen and the gun became indispensable weapons of liberation.

Reactionaries have assassinated literacy brigadistas in each campaign, goons of imperialism’s historic preference for a compliant, uneducated population over literate citizens capable of informed class struggle and seizing their future.

The multimillion dollar programs of the 1960s US-backed Alliance for Progress (AP) in Latin America, set up to counter the Cuban model, could not compete once it became clear that AP literacy was functional only to reforming capitalism.

UNESCO monitored two principal national literacy campaigns in the 60s: Christian Democrat Chile and Revolutionary Cuba. Both campaigns were state initiatives, both placed heavy emphasis on the agricultural sector, both took place amid huge social mobilisation, and both populations were of comparable size.

Their basic difference lay in the type of society in which each campaign was situated, Chile following a reforming capitalist path and Cuba a revolutionary socialist path to development. The Chilean campaign reduced illiteracy from 16.4% to 11% from 1965-1970; the Cuban effort reduced illiteracy from 23.6% to 3.9% in less than a year, in 1961. Fifty years on, the Chilean counter-revolution has succeeded in resurrecting the ghost of illiteracy; in Cuba, the lasting achievements of a “territory free from illiteracy” remain intact.

[A forum on Cuban Literacy at 50 will be held on April 15, 1 - 2.30 pm. Room 612, Education Building (A35), University of Sydney. Email or phone 0416 623 197 for more details.]

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