Latin lessons: What can we learn from the world’s most ambitious literacy campaign?

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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. Nina Lakhani travels to Havana to discover the story behind the success – and ask why some believe that cracks are starting to show...

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. Yet, even though Cuba's 11 million citizens are enormously proud of the educational system that has nourished them for five decades, there is increasing concern that the country's classrooms are not preparing Cubans for life beyond education.

Sitting on a park bench in Central Havana, Augusto Perdomo, an economist, electrician and housing officer in his early forties, encapsulates the issue: "Education here is great; you can study again and again, whatever you like. But then, there is not much else." It is a thirst for opportunities, felt most intensely among the youth, which poses one of the biggest threats to the Cuban political system. Will education for education's sake be enough to unite the people for another 50 years, or will the government be forced to invite foreign investment, ideas and opportunities and the inevitable social upheaval these will entail? '

In September 1960, a year after the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, prime minister of the fledgling government, stood before the United Nations assembly in New York and promised to wipe out illiteracy by the end of the following year – of its total seven million population at the time, more than a million adults were illiterate and less than half of all children had access to school. "Cuba will be the first country of America which will be able to say it does not have one person who remains illiterate," he declared. He dared to make such a bold pledge, just months after becoming leader, because preparations for universal literacy in Cuba had actually begun several years earlier.

High in the lush, foggy rainforests of the Sierra Maestra mountains in the south-east of Cuba, Castro and his fellow rebel leader Che Guevara spent two years living hidden among poor subsistence farmers, or campesinos, plotting the revolution. Here, hundreds of miles away from Havana – where the pro-government professional classes lived comfortably, enjoying private schooling and colour television – Guevara and Castro discovered that more than 40 per cent of adults were illiterate; there were no schools, no electricity and minimal access to healthcare.

The Sierra Maestra is part of the mainly rural region previously known as Oriente Province, which has a strong revolutionary history. It was here in 1895 that one of Cuba's great heroes, José Marti, was shot dead, aged 42. A poet, journalist, philosopher and political theorist, Marti dedicated his short life to the political, intellectual and cultural independence of all Latin Americans from Spanish colonialism and American expansionism.

It was his teachings that influenced the young Guevara and Castro as they transmitted messages of solidarity across the waves of Radio Rebelidad. But more significantly it was here that Marti's idea to bring the "light" of culture and the "bread" of literacy to peasants and newly freed slaves was made reality. Every day the rebel fighters made time to teach the uneducated campesinos with whom they lived and fought to read and write, in what Guevara termed the "battle against ignorance".

After the fall of Fulgencio Batista's regime in 1959, Castro wasted no time – 50 years ago this month, the revolutionary government had already began to mobilise the entire country, especially the youth, for what would become the world's most ambitious and organised literacy campaign.

Quickly realising that the country's educational system would buckle under the demands imposed by the drive to universal literacy, Castro used his imagination. Anyone, adult or child, who could read and write was encouraged to become an alfabetizador, or literacy teacher. René Mujica Cantelar, the current Cuban ambassador to the UK, volunteered as an alfabetizador in 1961 – one of 100,000 school-aged children to do so, the youngest being a girl of eight.

The youngest son of a barber and a housewife, Cantelar was 12 years old, just out of primary school, when he responded to the barrage of posters, newspapers, radio and TV adverts calling for volunteers to join the literacy brigadistas. "Those months after the Batista government fell were incredible," he recalls. "There was great euphoria on the streets of Havana. It was children like me, not our parents, who felt most involved, so when the call came for volunteers, I went to the nearest office, signed my name, and waited to be called."

The brigadistas were taken in buses to the beach resort of Varadero, a former playground for wealthy Americans and the mafia, 85 miles east of Havana, and given a maximum of two weeks' intensive training in how to teach and how to survive the harsh, rural conditions they were about to encounter.

Newspapers listed the names of the each new brigadista and showed pictures of the youngsters arriving from all over the country, but Cantelar's name never appeared: "I couldn't understand it; I was so desperate to be a part of the campaign, so I went back and found that my mum had come in and taken my name off the register," he laughs. Days later, having convinced his mother, he was on the bus to Varadero where thousands of youngsters were crammed into casinos, ballrooms, hotels and bars. Already-anxious parents were left terrified by the bloody Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, just two days after the first training camp opened. But the US attack failed, and volunteer numbers swelled.

The intensive training reflected life to come: up at 5am, classes started at 6.30am; afternoons were spent hiking and in physical training. The youngsters were then sent off to live with families armed with 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.

Cantelar ended up on a 65 hectare farm in San José de las Lagas, a municipality near Havana. During the day he worked alongside his host family of four, planting, cultivating and harvesting maize, sweet potatoes and pumpkins. For two hours each night, he taught the old man and eldest son to read and write using the lantern for light.

Many of the young teachers ate no meat or eggs or drank fresh milk for weeks, but Cantelar had been lucky – his farm also kept pigs, chickens and cows. "I learnt so much in those three months, and that was the point: we were learning more than we taught."

Schools were suspended across the country from April 1961 so that every teacher could teach and co-ordinate the 100,000 volunteers, half of whom were girls. Thousands of adults were drafted in as teachers over the last few months of that year, in order to ensure its success – and avoid embarrassment for Castro. Never before, or since, has a country used masses of unqualified teachers in such a co-ordinated way. The daily newspaper, Revolucion, published sketch maps showing each village and town that conquered illiteracy, as it happened. Everyone who had the intellectual capacity to learn was taught: the oldest person was a woman aged 106, a former slave.

Cantelar himself had mixed success: the old man dropped out after some weeks but his son, Ildo Estevez, learnt to read and write after three months and like all new literates, he wrote to Fidel, thanking him for the opportunity. Now aged 13, Cantelar joined a brigade in the northern province of Matanzas, teaching several families who worked in a salt farm, until the campaign was declared a success in December 1961: the illiteracy rate had been slashed from 25 per cent to less than 4 per cent within a year. Hundreds of thousands of alfabetizadores marched euphorically to the Plaza de la Revolucion on 22 December, carrying giant pencils, chanting, "Fidel Fidel tell us what else we can do". "Study, study, study!" came the reply. And they did.

Within months, a programme was set up for the new literates, now hungry for knowledge, to continue studying up to sixth grade, the equivalent of a primary education. Teacher-training was reformed and thousands of classrooms built; primary- and pre-school education were almost universally available in Cuba by 1970 (45 years ahead of the UN's 2015 deadline for its Millennium Development Goal).

College and university education expanded, became free, and started focusing on courses that reflected the country's skill shortages, and agricultural sciences, engineering, medicine and teaching degrees, for example, proliferated. Cuba's world-renowned healthcare system developed on the back of its educational reforms; there are now 23 medical schools in Cuba, up from three in 1959.

These changes happened at a furious pace, with the emphasis on quantity rather than quality at first, but today its defenders, such as Diosdada Vidal Valle, executive member of the education, science and sports union, claim that Cuba has a flexible education system which regularly reforms, often because of grass-roots pressure from parents and teachers.

So why did Cuba succeed where so many other literacy campaigns failed? The mass mobilisation of volunteer teachers and a system that used pictures depicting everyday scenes which people could relate to, discuss, and then learn to read and write about, were key factors, according to ' the doctor and educationalist Theodore Macdonald, honorary visiting professor at London Metropolitan University's Human Rights & Social Justice Research Institute, who has worked in, and written about, Cuba's education system. He believes that people were convinced of the need to read and write not just for their own sakes, but for the good of the country, which had lost huge numbers of skilled professionals, who had fled to Miami after the revolution. "The genius of the Cuban campaign was that they made it make a difference," he says. "It wasn't just about peasants becoming literate; it was about learning to read so they could join in politically and socially: there was a point to it. And then they wanted more."

The symbolic thank-you letters to Fidel, used by Unesco to evaluate the success of the campaign in 1964, are kept along with photographs and details of all 100,000 volunteers in a wonderful museum in La Ciudad Libertad, or the City of Liberty, which is situated in the former, vast Batista headquarters in the western suburbs of Havana. The former government offices and officials' homes are now home to bright, airy classrooms for several schools, colleges and universities, including three special schools for children with autism, learning disabilities and visual impairments.

Luisa Yara Campos, literacy museum director, teacher and committed socialist of some 40 years' standing, says: "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."

Over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Mozambique. Critics claim that this is motivated by the desire to promote socialist propaganda and the government's reputation in these countries. But Dr Jaime Canfux Gutiérrez, director of literacy at the Latin American and Caribbean Pedagogical Institute in La Ciudad Libertad, insists that this initiative is about promotion of Marti's principle of "literacy without borders". "This is about education for everyone as a human right, no matter who you are or where you live."

The Cuban programme continues to be adapted for use all over the world, including in Canada, Venezuela and among Maori people in New Zealand today. But, insists Professor Macdonald, the speed and extent of Cuba's advances in literacy struggle to be replicated elsewhere without the same political commitment to education and social change.

Furthering this argument, Bill Greenshields, the former president of the UK's National Union of Teachers, believes that the achievements of the Cuban education system are so inextricably linked to its socialist principles, that they remain unpalatable, and largely overlooked, by many governments not so disposed to Cuba's politics.

Indeed, even in Cuba, the great experiment has been beset by problems of late. In recent years, there has been an exodus of secondary-school teachers, seeking to earn "hard currency" by working with tourists as taxi drivers, guides or in hotels, according to Valle from the education union. Attempts to fill the gap by using intensive teacher-training courses for young people barely out of school, and introducing a generalist degree, attracted widespread criticism and have recently been abandoned.

The exodus is, in fact, a symptom of a wider problem, which has become more pronounced since visa restrictions were eased to encourage more tourists, and their dollars. Cubans meet these incomers, see their fashionable clothes, hear about their lifestyles, and many obviously want the same opportunities to travel and earn money. Some are even talking of a "crisis in education".

"A youngster sees that his dad is a doctor, his mum is a teacher, his uncle an engineer, and yet the family cannot afford a TV or nice clothes," says primary-school teacher Julio Gomez. "So they think, 'I'm better off working with tourists.' This is a problem for teaching, for our education [system], but also for the country."

Valle, however, is confident that the Cuban education system will not only survive, but will continue to reform and improve. "Here we are always seeking for a perfect system; that is the way it has been for 50 years. When we encounter problems, we introduce modifications; the next is always better than the last. It is true that many teachers have left because of the economic situation; wanting more money is a reasonable desire. But teaching remains a very respected profession. We have introduced a new minimum salary and modified the training, so I am confident that we will resolve this crisis as well."

Yet Professor Macdonald is less certain that the Cuban system can survive, at least within its own borders. "The Cuban model is at the vanguard of education, and health, but its future in a neo-liberal [market-driven] world is grim. There is an increasing shift towards appreciating and copying the Cuban system in Latin America and many other countries such as Malawi and Pakistan, but it is unlikely that [the original] will survive to see these changes. Cuba is like Moses in the wilderness. It will lead people to the Promised Land but it will never get there itself." n

My part in a nation's education

by Dr Jorge Fiallo

Dr Jorge Fiallo, 63, adviser to the vice-president of the Latin American and Caribbean Institute of Pedagogy in La Ciudad Libertad, was 14 when he volunteered for the literacy campaign. "My father was a soldier in the Batista army and died fighting against Fidel's men's in 1958," he recalls, while looking through his archived records for the first time. "At the time I was living a comfortable life with my mother in a house in Havana, attending a private Catholic school, so I guess I should have been against the revolution, but I wasn't; I was still too young.

"You couldn't miss the call for teachers, and I went to Varadero in July for training. I was sent to a farm in Pinar del Rio to live with a very poor family of five. I stayed for 115 days. The men's work was dangerous, climbing up palm trees to chop down leaves to make roofs. I helped on the farm and then taught the three adults at night.

"I was always hungry. They ate so badly: maize and rice, nothing else. I used to spend my monthly 100 peso (£2.80) allowance on processed meat for us all. There was no electricity; the river for water was 150 metres away. I was so scared of the snakes that I slept in my hammock. Once I needed a doctor, but the hospital was 21km away: 10km by horse, then 11km by shared truck; I couldn't believe what their life was like. It was a truly extraordinary experience and changed me forever, in a good way." NL

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