The Cuban Literacy Campaign (Spanish: Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba) was a year-long effort to abolish illiteracy in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution. It began on January 1 and ended on December 22, 1961, becoming the world's most ambitious and organized literacy campaign.
Before 1959 the official literacy rate for Cuba was between 60% and 76%, largely because of lack of education access in rural areas and a lack of instructors. As a result, the Cuban government of Fidel Castro at Che Guevara's behest dubbed 1961 the "year of education" and sent "literacy brigades" out into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the predominantly illiterate guajiros (peasants) to read and write. The campaign was "a remarkable success." By its completion, 707,212 adults were taught to read and write, raising the national literacy rate to 96%.
In 2011, producer and director Catherine Murphy released the 33-minute documentary Maestra about the Cuban Literacy Campaign. The film includes interviews with volunteers who taught during the campaign and archival footage from 1961.
The dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by an armed guerrilla movement known as the 26th of July Movement (Movimiento 26 de Julio) on January 1, 1959. The new revolutionary government, led by Fidel Castro, immediately began a series of social and economic reforms. Among these were agrarian reform, health care reform, and education reform, all of which dramatically improved the quality of life among the lowest sectors of Cuban society.
During the turmoil of the first several years of the revolution, the flight of many skilled workers caused a “brain drain.” This loss of human capital sparked a renovation of the Cuban education system to accommodate the instruction of new workers, who would take the place of those who had emigrated from the country.
In addition to the renewal of Cuba’s infrastructure, there were strong ideological reasons for education reform. In pre-Revolutionary Cuba, there was a dichotomy between urban citizens and rural citizens (who were often agricultural workers). The Cuban Revolution was driven by the need for equality, particularly among these classes. Before the campaign, the rate of illiteracy among city dwellers was 11%, compared to 41.7% in the countryside.
The Literacy Campaign was designed to force contact between sectors of society that would not usually interact. As Fidel Castro put it in 1961 while addressing literacy teachers, “You will teach, and you will learn.” Volunteers from the city were often ignorant of the poor conditions of rural citizens until their experiences during this campaign. Besides literacy, the campaign aimed to create a collective identity of “unity, [an] attitude of combat, courage, intelligence, and a sense of history.” Politicized educational materials were used to further these ideals. The effort was labeled a movement of “the people” and gave citizens a common goal, increasing solidarity.
It is estimated that 1,000,000 Cubans were directly involved (as teachers or students) in the Literacy Campaign. There were four categories of workers:
- “Conrado Benitez” Brigade (Conrado Benitez Brigadistas)—100,000 young volunteers (ages 10–19) who left school to live and work with students in the countryside. The number of students leaving schools to volunteer was so great that an alternative education was put in place for 8 months of the 1961 school year.
- Popular Alphabetizers (Alfabetizadores populares)—Adults who volunteered to teach in cities or towns. It is documented that 13,000 factory workers held classes for their illiterate co-workers after hours. This group includes the individuals who taught friends, neighbors, or family members out of their homes.
- “Fatherland or Death” Brigade (Patria o Muerte Brigadistas)—A group of 15,000 adult workers who were paid to teach in remote rural locations through an arrangement that their co-workers would fill in for them, so that the workforce remained strong.
- Schoolteacher Brigades—A group of 15,000 professional teachers who oversaw the technical and organizational aspects of the campaign. As 1961 progressed, their involvement grew to the extent that most teachers participated full-time for a majority of the campaign. The "Fatherland or Death" brigade, along with the Schoolteacher brigade, is sometimes simply referred to as the Workers Brigade (Brigadistas Obreros).
The government provided teaching supplies to volunteers. Workers who traveled to rural locations to teach received a standard grey uniform, a warm blanket, a hammock, two textbooks — We Shall Read and We Shall Conquer — and a gas-powered lantern, so that lessons could be given at night after work ended.
Hundreds of thousands of alfabetizadores marched euphorically to the Plaza de la Revolucion on December 22nd 1961, carrying giant pencils, chanting, "Fidel Fidel tell us what else we can do". "Study, study, study!" came the reply.
One of the difficulties Revolutionary Cuba faced was the prevalence of terrorism. From 1960 to 1965, it is reported that at least 681 acts of terrorism were committed against the Cuban people.
Supporters of the revolution who were too young or otherwise unable to participate in the downfall of Fulgencio Batista saw the campaign as an opportunity to contribute to the success of the new government and hoped to instill a revolutionary consciousness in their students. Many of the instructional texts used during the Literacy Campaign focused on the history of the Revolution and had strong political messages, which made the movement a target of opposition. Counter-revolutionaries used violent acts of terrorism to destabilize Cuba and create an atmosphere of fear. Several acts were committed on public property, notably the bombing of the country’s largest department store, El Encanto, on April 13, 1961. That year, teachers, students, and peasants were tortured and murdered to terrorize the farming community and reduce support for the literacy campaign. Young teachers were shot, lynched, and stabbed by terrorist groups. There are numerous accusations that these terrorist groups were backed by the United States Government. It is well known that the CIA embarked on "Operation Mongoose" (a.k.a. The Cuban Project) during these years, which attempted to remove Castro’s government from power through a campaign of propaganda, psychological warfare, and sabotage against Cuba.
"Before 1959 it was the countryside versus the city. The literacy campaign united the country because, for the first time, people from the city understood how hard life was for people before the revolution, that they survived on their own, and that as people they had much in common. This was very important for the new government."
Many of the Literacy Campaign’s volunteers went on to pursue teaching careers, and the rate of teachers is now 11 times higher than it was before the revolution. Before the revolutionary government nationalized schools, private institutions often excluded large segments of society; wealthy Cubans often received exemplary instruction in private schools, while children of the working class received low-quality education or did not attend school at all. Education became accessible to a much larger segment of the population after 1959. The percentage of children enrolled in school in Cuba (ages 6–12) increased dramatically over the years:
It is estimated that 268,000 Cubans worked to eliminate illiteracy during the Year of Education, and around 707,000 Cubans became literate by December 22, 1961. By 1962, the country’s literacy rate was 96%, one of the highest in the world.
Cuban literacy educators trained during the campaign went on to assist in literacy campaigns in 15 other countries, for which a Cuban organization was awarded the King Sejong Literacy Prize by UNESCO. Additionally, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Mozambique.
The thank-you letters to Fidel Castro, used by UNESCO to evaluate the success of the campaign in 1964, are kept with photographs and details of all 100,000 volunteers in a museum in La Ciudad Libertad (City of Liberty), which is in Fulgencio Batista's vast former headquarters in the western suburbs of Havana.