Latin lessons: What can we learn from the world’s most ambitious literacy campaign? - UK Independent
Fifty years ago this month, Cuba committed itself to teach every citizen basic literacy. Today, the country’s education system is the envy of the rest of the world.
“…Tuesday afternoon in the José Marti Primary School means it’s time for maths. A classroom full of wide-eyed eight-year-old boys and girls are poring over frayed workbooks in pairs while their teacher walks around peering over tiny shoulders. Each wears the standard Cuban primary-school uniform of burgundy shorts or mini-skirt and white short-sleeved shirt, and eager hands go up one after the other as the day’s sums are completed.
It is an industrious scene, and one that plays out daily at any of the numerous schools that dot the narrow streets of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana). The schools are old and cramped – this part of the capital is a World Heritage site, and subject to Unesco’s building restrictions as well as the ongoing US blockade on materials that blights the country as a whole. Teachers must therefore use the city’s many parks and plazas for PE lessons, while paper, books and other basic materials that British schoolchildren take for granted are also in short supply. Yet despite these and other problems, education in Havana – indeed, across Cuba – remains one of the wonders of this evolving socialist republic.
The statistics alone are enough to make the parent of the average British schoolchild green with envy: there is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.
Irrespective of your class, your income or where you live, education at every level is free, and standards are high. The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development.
Expectations are high; indiscipline and truancy are rare; school meals and uniforms are free. Although computers in good working order may be scarce, it is not uncommon for schools to open at 6.30am and close 12 hours later, providing free morning and after-school care for working parents with no extended family. "Mobile teachers” are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability.
Micro-universities which offer part-time and distance learning have been set up in the provinces over the past few years, as competition for the country’s 15 universities has become so fierce that some require 90 per cent exam averages to guarantee entry. Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular.
The vast majority of Cuba’s 150,000 teachers have studied for a minimum of five years, half to master’s level. And despite financial woes which prompted the government to recently announce one million public-sector job cuts, it has promised to keep investing in free education at all levels.
Cuba spends 10 per cent of its central budget on education, compared with 4 per cent in the UK and just 2 per cent in the US, according to Unesco. The result is that three out of five Cubans over the age of 16 are in some type of formal, higher education. Wherever you travel in Cuba, just about everyone can read and write, and many have one or more academic qualifications.
In a mere half-century, Cuba has developed one of the world’s most successful free education systems, admired everywhere, from the UK to Canada to New Zealand…“
Cuba: Education and Revolution
Ricardo Alarcón De Quesada
"Every province has at least one university and one school of medicine. We maintain a health system that is entirely free of cost for patients and covers the entire country and all its people. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors are providing their services, also free of charge, in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Cuba has developed research centers that have discovered, produced, and export vaccines, medicines, and specialized equipment, accomplishments that give the island a leading role in this respect among third world countries. This is especially noteworthy when one takes into account that this world health sector is strongly controlled by monopolies of the great capitalist corporations. Cuba has done all this despite the draconian measures of the economic blockade that the United States has imposed on it for half a century.
This year in Cuba we are celebrating two anniversaries that are closely linked to each other. Fifty years ago we eliminated illiteracy and, at the same time, we won our victory at the Bay of Pigs, where in less than seventy-two hours, a military invasion organized, armed, and led by the CIA was overwhelmingly defeated. In 1961 the Cuban people achieved two hard-to-repeat prizes. Cuba became the first country on the American continent to eradicate illiteracy and the first militarily to defeat imperialism. Ironically, in the same year that UNESCO certified that every Cuban had learned to read and write, President Kennedy ordered the military attack that, if it had been successful, would have returned the people to a past of ignorance and no education.
When the Revolution triumphed in 1959, at least one quarter of the Cuban population was completely illiterate. Many others were considered to be “functionally illiterate,” which means that even though they could decipher and pronounce words, they were unable fully to understand them. Such a reality was striking in a country where there were thousands of jobless teachers and thousands of classrooms without teachers, a country where most of the children were not enrolled in any school and most of those who started education never finished the primary level. The data proving these statements are recorded in the last census carried out by the Batista regime, which was not exactly interested in exaggerating the dramatically unjust social situation prevailing in Cuba at that time. The Cuban literacy campaign offered extraordinary dimensions in terms of public participation. Scores of students, organized in brigades, “invaded” the entire country, armed only with a lantern and a literacy booklet, and they penetrated the most remote areas on their noble mission. One of them, Manuel Ascunce, was murdered by mercenary gangs who also killed his student, the campesino Pedro Lantigua.
Far from impeding the campaign, these crimes served as a stimulus for an even greater mobilization of student literacy workers. Unions also gave a decisive contribution. Conrado Benitez, a worker, was also murdered while teaching reading and writing in the mountains. The names of these martyrs became beloved symbols for the Cuban teaching profession.
Successfully carrying out the literacy program was a solid foundation for a project with an even wider and more sustained scope. The program was followed by the battle to require every single person to complete at least primary education and to promote massive reading through the establishment of a publishing system that has by now printed millions of copies of books of diverse titles that are sold at incredibly low prices. This effort was begun with the publication of Miguel de Cervantes’s timeless The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Having reached half a century ago what is even now one of the UN Millennium goals, a fundamental right still denied to hundreds of millions around the globe, we believe it to be our moral duty to help others do the same. This is internationalism for us, the heart and substance of socialist ideals.
Cuban teachers devised an agile and suitable method for learning how to read and write, the “Yes, I Can” (Yo Sí Puedo) method that has allowed millions of people in other countries to free themselves of illiteracy. Yo Sí Puedo applies the method pioneered by Paulo Freire in Brazil, building literacy around the needs and initiatives of communities themselves, working with people to read the word and the world. Repeating the exploit their parents and grandparents carried out on the island half a century ago, tens of thousands of young Cubans have “invaded” the remotest areas in Latin America and Africa and other continents and embarked on successful literacy campaigns. Venezuela, for example, now is an Illiteracy-Free Territory, officially acknowledged as such by UNESCO.
General literacy has already been reached by important segments of the population in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Ecuador, countries that are marching confidently toward the complete eradication of the scourge of ignorance. The Cuban literacy program Yo Sí Puedo, approved by UNESCO, has been effectively implemented in twenty countries all over the world. To date, eleven versions of the program have been produced: seven in Spanish (for Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, and Uruguay); one in Portuguese; one in English; two recently completed versions for Bolivia in Quechua and Aymara; and one in Creole, used successfully in Haiti. The multiplying effect of this campaign is one of its most beautiful fruits. It is not only Cubans who are part of this noble and challenging quest. Side by side with them today are young Venezuelans, Bolivians, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Ecuadorans, and young people from other nationalities.
Something similar is happening with the massive spread of free medical care. For years, tens of thousands of Cuban doctors have provided their services in many places in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. But now they are not alone in the fulfilment of this task. The Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), located close to the west of Havana, has by now graduated many young people from many countries, including the United States. Some of the graduates collaborate with the Henry Reeve Brigade, a contingent of Cuban doctors that was created in response to the catastrophe resulting from Hurricane Katrina. President George W. Bush, however, refused the Brigade’s offer to help the victims in Louisiana. Unable to come to the aid of the American people, the Henry Reeve Brigade went off to the Himalayas to save Pakistanis affected by the devastating earthquake. More recently, it joined thousands of young Cubans who, since the end of the last century, have been providing the Haitian people with essential life-saving services, and have practically put an end to a terrible cholera epidemic there. Our doctors have been honored in Pakistan and Haiti, and acknowledged by international institutions….”