Photo: Final closing march of the literacy campaign. Dec 21, 1961. Photo by Liborio Noval
By Annika Lee
In 1960, Fidel Castro introduced his literacy campaign that would target one million illiterate adult Cubans. He claimed that with in a year, all of these adults would be taught how to read and write. In my mind this campaign, while viewed by the rest of world as having ties to communism, was the most successful literacy campaign ever ran. Countries all around the world, communist or not, should be adapting this method of eradicating illiteracy. A nation’s literacy should take precedent over stubbornness in an ideological war. Every country in the world struggles with an illiterate population. Some may be worse than others, but the truth is that literacy is an extremely important component of society and individual life. UNESCO reports that today the world’s literacy rate stands at 26%, or 1 billion people. This is still an issue and we should look at Cuba’s practices as the solution.
Literacy determines how educated a population is on making informed decisions, which should be especially appealing to democratic nations. Communist and capitalist countries alike were very concerned with eradicating illiteracy, however education was increasingly politicized during the Cold War. There were some aspects of Castro’s education policies that lead capitalist countries to reject anything concerning education from Cuba immediately. It is important to first know what exactly the Cuban Literacy Campaign was and its results, how Cuba got funding for this project, and what aspects of Cuba’s educational policies turned off capitalist countries.
The Cuban Literacy Campaign called upon volunteer teachers across Cuba to teach reading and writing to its illiterate population. Cubans answered the call with 250,000 volunteers. These teachers, most of whom were young women, would live and work with the families that they would be teaching. This campaign was not completely risk free. There were attacks all across Cuba, including the Bay of Pigs, that put teachers and students in harms way. There was documentation of a teacher and student dying as a result of one attack. Cuba was fighting a war on the world stage but kept their people’s literacy a top priority. This campaign was overwhelmingly successful. In the 1950’s Cuba’s literacy rate was around 70% and today it stands at 99.8%. Cuba dedicated a large portion of the budget towards education because they saw it as a key component to the revolution that was happening at the time in the country. It was after Cuba had gained so much traction, reaching near 100% literacy rate in less than two years, that UNESCO became intrigued and began to study what Cubans were doing right. Before this, the World Bank had established that they would not fund any literacy programs through UNESCO because they saw no return on investment. When they realized that education could be used as a tool for peace (and of course profit) they were more open to the idea of funding different literacy campaigns.
There were two presidents of The World Bank during this time that helped and hurt the campaign in Cuba. The first was Robert McNamara. McNamara was a supporter of mass literacy campaigns like the one in Cuba. This meant that UNESCO was receiving funding for campaigns to be ran like the Cuban Literacy Campaign. The second president, George Woods, was extremely anti-communist, and therefore anti mass literacy campaigns. He saw what happened in Cuba and took it as a reason to fund even more educational programs to capitalist countries so that they would develop programs that were better and beat Cuba (communism).
Capitalist countries refused to accept the literacy campaign because they saw it as a package deal with the rest of the educational policies that Fidel Castro was putting in place at the time. One of these that was a big red flag for capitalist was free and public education. Castro did away with private education and most of these establishments were funded by the Catholic Church. Most importantly though, this literacy campaign came out of Cuba during the same time as the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bluntly, it is bad optics for America to try to copy this campaign when they are in an ideological war with everything the country stands for. My point is that this should not matter. Castro found a system that works efficiently and effectively. It solved this illiteracy crisis that plagued Cuba in a matter of two years. If educating the masses is really the key to peace and also a democratic society, than countries should not be so concerned with optics and instead focus on the needs of their people.
Fernandes, Sujatha. “Freedom Through a Pencil: The 1961 Literacy Campaign in Cuba.” NACLA, 16 Dec. 2011, nacla.org/news/2011/12/16/freedom-through-pencil-1961-literacy-campaign-cuba.
telesurenglish. “The Cuban Literacy Campaign.” YouTube, YouTube, 8 Sept. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gh2zTs5A7U.’
Charles Dorn, Kristen Ghodsee, The Cold War Politicization of Literacy, Diplomatic History Vol. 36 No. 2 April 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44376156
 Fernandes, Sujatha. “Freedom Through a Pencil: The 1961 Literacy Campaign in Cuba.” NACLA, 16 Dec. 2011, nacla.org/news/2011/12/16/freedom-through-pencil-1961-literacy-campaign-cuba.