“The Literacy Campaign was a cultural revolution” interview with Cuban Minister for Education

Cuban literacy campaign 1960-61 Foto: Periódico Revolución

December 2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the declaration of Cuba as a territory free of illiteracy, Dr. Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, Minister of Education declared in a recent interview in the Cuban press.

Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, Cuban Miniater of Education December 2021 Photo: Ismael Batista Ramirez

“Without the success of the Cuban Revolution, the Literacy Campaign could not have been carried out. It was undoubtedly a transcendental revolution in education and culture. The people needed education and teaching, and that became a pressing need to be able to carry out the transformations demanded by the new political, economic and social project of the country.

“History allows us to analyze that, although the 1940 Constitution declared education compulsory for all Cuban children, the educational system was characterized by the existence of great inequalities in access to resources and educational opportunities; the education of the poorest sectors of society was almost nil. In 1958, four figures reflected the terrible state of education: one million completely illiterate, more than one million semi-illiterate, 600,000 children without schools and 10,000 teachers without work.

“There are many Cuban families that keep special memories of the young people who in 1961 came to the most remote corners of the country to bring the light of education.

“A significant number of the literacy teachers were students between the ages of seven and 19. To be part of the brigades they needed the authorization of their parents. The students were trained for several weeks and equipped with a special uniform, clothes, a blanket and a lamp with which they could travel the countryside at night. These historic lamps became the symbol of the brigades. The experience was not without risks: the youths were targeted by the counterrevolutionaries, and ten of them were sadly murdered, including the student Manuel Ascunce Domenech and the peasant in whose house he was staying, Pedro Lantigua.

“At the end of the summer of 1961, the brigades were fully operational, we had 120,632 popular literacy teachers, 13,016 members of the Patria o Muerte Brigade, 34,772 teachers and 100,000 Conrado Benítez brigade members, making a total of 268,420 members of the literacy force.

“According to the Final Report of the Campaign, read by Armando Hart in the Plaza de la Revolución, on December 22, 1961, between 1959 and 1960 100,000 Cubans became literate, and during the Literacy Campaign the figure was 707 212 adults, reducing the illiteracy rate to 3.9% of the total population. As Fidel said that same day: “four and a half centuries of ignorance has collapsed.”

“The door of knowledge had been opened for everyone, a cultural base had been created, which had transformed life after centuries, everything that should have been changed at that time was changed, a basic revolutionary principle. The Literacy Campaign was, without a doubt, a cultural revolution. However, the Revolution was not totally satisfied that people knew how to read and write, other campaigns were carried out; in 1962, the campaign for reading, in search of new ways for the cultural development of the town.

“The Cuban Revolution, from its beginnings, worked intensely to raise the educational level of the literate population, which gave rise to Worker and Peasant Education in 1962.

“That year the battle for the sixth grade [for everyone to be educated to that level, equivalent to year 7 in the UK] began, which had its final phase between the years 1976-1980, with radio and television support. In the five-year period 1980-1985, the battle for the ninth grade was intensely developed; In addition, the norms and procedures for the operation of the Peasant Worker Secondary Schools are established. In 1969, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Faculties, which had been operating subordinate to the universities, were incorporated into the Adult Education subsystem of the Ministry of Education, where an upper secondary level equivalent to high school was obtained.

“In all this period the figure of one teacher stands out, Raúl Ferrer Pérez, who is inextricably associated with the birth and strengthening of Adult Education in the revolutionary stage [in the early 60s]. Three principles derive from his legacy: practicality and doing is fundamental in the pedagogical task, teaching how to do by doing, and making the classroom a workshop.

“During these years, inclusive educational programs and policies were implemented for the care and training of educators and young people and adults, including the creation of Language Schools and educational services in the community.

“Another indicator that the campaign has been permanent and for everyone is the literacy campaign for the blind, which is an example of the efforts made in Cuba to achieve the integration of people with disabilities into society. This campaign began in 1979, and by 1983, more than 1,500 blind people had learned to read and write using Braille.

“You cannot talk about literacy here, without mentioning the Cuban method “I can” (Yo sí puedo.)

“The results achieved by our country is being transferred to other parts of the world with the well-known program ‘I can’, a symbol, moreover, of the closest relations of brotherhood, which is nothing other than the concrete expression of international solidarity. The program has been implemented in 30 countries and, to date, 10,614,119 people have been taught to read and write, while 1,317 participants remain in classes. Within those 30 countries, the contribution has been significant in nations such as Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, just to mention a few places where we have brought love and knowledge. Knowledge has multiplied in all its variants, in person, on the radio or on television, and the results are always very encouraging, knowledge is a fine wealth that elevates and strengthens us.

“After the Literacy Campaign, many young people found their true vocation as teachers and never abandoned teaching.

“It fills us with pride and commitment to have literacy teachers actively still teaching. Our recognition also to those who are retired, but who always have the doors of their homes open for when they are summoned to talk about this beautiful moment in their lives. Others were educated in different sectors of society, but they all have something in common: they were forever marked as literacy educators.

“The Cuban Revolution treasures much of what was learned in the Literacy Campaign, which left us a working method in terms of the art of calling to wage great social battles; It taught us that the Revolution can always count on its young people, capable of assuming any revolutionary purpose as its own; it ratified the power of values ​​and feelings in the education of the new generations; it was the foundation for the training of teachers, nurtured by the arsenal of knowledge that we inherited from our founding fathers of the Cuban school; It showed that the educational and cultural activity of the country needed continuity, which gives it a criterion of permanence and development all the time”.

Link to interview published in Granma in Spanish