A generation’s incalculable contribution

The more than 700,000 Cubans who learned to read and write, especially for those well into adulthood, literacy provided the opportunity to take control of their lives

Author: Yenia Silva Correa | informacion@granma.cu

december 27, 2016 10:12:51

Young volunteer teachers reached even the most remote regions within the country. Photo: Archive

What did it mean for a small country like Cuba to eliminate illiteracy in just one year, with a massive, popular campaign? What changes did learning to read and write bring to the lives of illiterate individuals? What would have been the country’s fate if the effort had not be made?

No one doubts that undertaking such an ambitious effort would not have been possible without the nascent Revolution. The campaign not only taught reading and writing, but served as well to dignify the noble vocation of teaching, and transformed the foundation of national life by guaranteeing access to education for all.

On September 26, 1960, during his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, Fidel made a commitment to eliminating illiteracy when he asserted, “Cuba will be the first country in America, within a few months, that can say it does not have a single illiterate person.”

Children, youth, and adults from all sectors of society were among the thousands of volunteer teachers who reached even the country’s most remote corners.

Universal literacy was considered a key task for the country, among those outlined in the Moncada program, and once the Revolution triumphed, January 1, 1959, Fidel’s idea was put into action. The 1961 academic year was ended early in April, so that students could participate in the campaign.

Volunteer literacy teachers in the Conrado Benítez Brigade, named in honor of the young man killed by counterrevolutionaries, and the Homeland or Death contingent, took their manuals and kerosene lamps across the nation. Along with those who trained the literacy teachers, more than 250,000 individuals, mostly very young, participated.

There were ten other young teachers who gave their lives during the noble effort, killed by opponents of the Revolution, the most well-known being Manuel Ascunce Domenech.

Cuba has shared with Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and peoples of other latitudes the value of eliminating illiteracy, offering collaboration with experts from the country.

The more than 700,000 Cubans who learned to read and write, especially for those well into adulthood, literacy provided the opportunity to take control of their lives.

Many of the teachers and the learners are now professionals, intellectuals, scientists, technicians, and skilled workers, thanks to this opportunity provided by the Revolution. More than a few assumed, for the rest of their lives, the noble profession of teaching, giving it all of their energy and devotion.

As is the case in all revolutionary processes, youth did not hesitate to take the lead in 1961, a year that is significant in Cuban history not only because of the literacy campaign, but also for the victory at Playa Girón, the first military defeat of imperialism in Latin America.

Beyond the incalculable value of eliminating illiteracy, making education universally available and free of charge was one of the many social justice causes defended by the Revolution.

It is impossible to separate the literacy campaign from the figure of Fidel, since he conceived it, organized, and led it, opening up opportunities for young people at the time, asking but one thing in return: that they study.

In his unforgettable speech of December 22, 1961, in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, Fidel declared, “The young have the world, the future, in their hands,” and it was these young people, who risking their own lives, went out to teach.

The literacy campaign changed minds and lives, and established the principles that would guide Cuban education all these years, while providing experience that would lead to the development of the “Yes, I can” literacy method, used by millions around the world to become literate.

Thanks to the literacy campaign, as well, is the human capital the country has developed to make the Revolution’s achievements possible, and produce the high level of education the country’s citizens enjoy.

The generation responsible for eliminating illiteracy can be proud of having written one of the most altruistic chapters in the history of Cuba.