Cuba’s Literacy Rate

By Linda Silvius

If you are a regular follower of our blog, you may remember that I was lucky enough to travel to Cuba in January 2012 and when I wrote for our blog, it was about the amazing literacy rate in Cuba– 97% of their population is literate. Their students score higher than any other country in Central and South America on standardized tests. Their education is free all the way through university level.  When Fidel Castro led his revolution in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, education was one of two major priorities.  What did he do to move this country from 24% of their population who were totally illiterate to only 3.9%?

One trip to Cuba in a year is lucky – two in a year is VERY lucky!! So when the opportunity arose to go again this December I decided that I wanted to learn what the “secret” was to this amazing literacy rate. Turns out it was no secret at all – in fact they have a Museum of Literacy in Havana that documents the entire process. And I have to say, I walked out of that museum amazed at how a very simple concept had the power to change lives forever.

In January of 1961, Fidel Castro issued a call to young people – students aged 14 and 15.  He summoned them to step up and go into the rural areas of the country where the literacy rate was at its worst. He asked them to leave their homes and live with host families. These young people were to work in the fields with their host families during the day and teach them to read and write at night. One hundred and five thousand students ranging in age from 12 – 15 stepped up and volunteered!! Yes, 105,000 young people volunteered!

These youth were then given a crash course in how to teach reading and writing to people who were totally illiterate. The people who taught the youth were experienced teachers who had gone through the university program for educators and were teaching in schools all over Havana and surrounding areas, in addition to university professors. People who were in political agreement with Castro came from Mexico and all of Central America to teach the youth. This effort was massive and focused.

Every movement has its symbols – and this one was no exception. Each of the youth teachers who went into the countryside took not just their teaching supplies but also a lantern that had been supplied by theSoviet Union. Since the studying and teaching had to happen in the evening, after a day in the fields was finished, and there was no electricity in rural Cuba, the lantern was not only the symbol of the literacy movement, but a very practical tool needed by the young teachers.

The oldest person taught to read and write was 110 years old. The youngest teacher was 8 years old! Many of the youth teachers from the literacy campaign went on to become teachers as adults and some are still teaching! The museum has a documentary film, “Maestra” which tells the story of 3 teachers from the literacy movement. It was clearly a time in their lives when they – as young people – knew they were a resource to their community!

On December 22, 1961, Castro declared that illiteracy had been eradicated from Cuba. It had been less than a year since he challenged the young people of the country to step up to the challenge of ending illiteracy. At that point in time over 20% of illiteracy had been eliminated, with 3.9% remaining. To this day, they have held to that rate!

They have packaged their literacy curriculum/campagin so it can be used in other places. Venezula, Brazil and Nicarauga have all used their curriculum and also eradicated illiteracy. It is also being used in Canada and Australia.

So how did those young people know when their adult students were “done”? Was there a final exam they had to administer?  Did they have to read out loud or write an essay to be graded?  The “final exam” was for the adult student to actually write a thank you letter to Fidel Castro. The Literacy Museum has thousands of those letters on file – and they certainly tell the story of an idea that became a reality because youth were empowered to teach their elders in communities to read and write!


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