Cuban Aboriginal literacy program success

April 8, 2016

More than 80 people packed into a lecture theatre at Sydney University on March 31 for a public forum entitled: "Increasing Aboriginal literacy: The Cuban 'Yes I Can!' literacy campaign in Australia". The forum was organised by the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (ACFS).

Publicity from the ACFS asked: "Why has a Cuba-inspired campaign achieved outstanding success where government schooling and adult courses have largely failed?

"Up to 60% of Aboriginal adults living in rural and remote areas have functional illiteracy in English. The 'Yes I Can!' [!Yo Si Puedo!] Aboriginal Literacy Campaign, organised by the Literacy for Life Foundation, began in Wilcannia in 2012 with Cuban advisor Jose Chala. Already, after the first pilots of the campaign, more than 100 Aboriginal adults from the Murdi Paaki region in western NSW have graduated.

"The campaign draws on the successful mass literacy campaign in Cuba in 1961, which was part of the popular revolution. The 'Yes I Can' campaign has been used in 29 countries to help 8 million people develop basic literacy skills."

Yexenia Calzado, from the Asia and Oceania department of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, explained that the Cuban education system is fully integrated. "Everybody has complete access to education to the highest level. Nothing like this existed before the 1959 Revolution."

"Creating total literacy was one of the first tasks adopted after the revolution. Cuba has since provided educational assistance to many countries around the world, now including Australia."

Chala, noted that Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at 99.8%. This experience has now been used to help people in many countries.

"It is essential to get local people involved in the program within their own communities. Aboriginal community leaders have said the 'Yes I Can!' campaign is one of the best things to happen in their community."

Mary Waites, a Ngemba woman and campaign co-ordinator in Brewarrina, stressed the great progress made in her community through the literacy program. "It has been a long, hard journey, with much more work to be done. But it has to be our way, or no way, if we are to overcome all the challenges."

Jack Beetson, a Ngemba leader and head of the Literacy for Life Foundation, said: "The Cuban revolution is a great source of inspiration. A country so small, with so little, gives so much to so many.

"Cuba is addressing the basic issue of illiteracy, which hasn't been successfully addressed in Australia in the 228 years since British colonisation. We have now achieved a 76% graduation rate in Brewarrina.

"Despite the support we have already gained from various organisations, what's still missing is the resources to roll the program out nationally. It is essential that Aboriginal people lead the campaign, and that we get the support we need to complete the process," Beetson said.

[For more information, visit the Literacy for Life Foundation:]

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