Opened Doors

Posted by Marisa Campain

As an American, what comes to your mind when you think of Cuba? Half a century of sour relations between our countries has left many people unsure of what to think about Cuba now that relations are improving. Studying and visiting Cuba, I ran into quite a bit of controversy and disagreement over the events of the last fifty years. However, around all the political strife, I discovered that the Cubans have attained a variety of developmental and cultural achievements that we never hear about in the U.S. I hope to do another post on the culture and the people of Cuba, but I’ll start by sharing the developmental milestones that drew me to the island in the first place.

Me reppin’ at the annual International Day of the Worker procession in Havana.

My original interest in Cuba was in its surprisingly high developmental indicators, particularly in education and healthcare. Cuba has a nearly 100% literacy rate and has a life expectancy and infant mortality rate nearly equal to that of Western Europe, which one wouldn’t expect in a relatively poor developing nation (and which one doesn’t find in neighboring countries like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua).

I had heard that Cuba had good healthcare from classes at UTD as well as healthcare internships in Peru and Nicaragua, so I wanted to see for myself if this was true. I wasn’t approved by the Cuban government to do an internship in healthcare (most likely because I’m from the U.S.), so instead I studied education. I started with education reforms after the revolution of 1959, but my specific focus was a 1961 campaign that eradicated illiteracy in the country using somewhat unconventional means.

In 1961, declared by Fidel Castro to be “The Year of Education”, Cuba made a goal to eradicate illiteracy in the country. The government called upon the Cuban citizens to join the effort, and several hundred thousand people signed up to be trained and then dispatched to the countryside to teach. These “brigadiers” (as they’re called in Cuba), which included more than 100,000 high school and college-age students, were sent around the country to areas previously identified as educationally underserved. They strung up hammocks in the houses of local families, worked in the fields during the day, and conducted night classes for illiterate laborers in the evenings.

I’m aware that this probably sounds like an idealist dream that couldn’t possibly be real. But the Cubans are pretty proud of this campaign, and I saw quite a bit (a museum’s worth, actually) of evidence that this is actually what happened. UNESCO validated the success of the campaign with all of the data needed to prove it, and I got to hear the stories of people who actually participated.

A picture from the campaign museum showing volunteer teachers at work.
The medal awarded to campaign participants.

The first story was from Emilio, my main teacher in Cuba. Emilio was raised in a middle class family and was a teenager during the revolution of 1959. Upon graduating from high school in ’61, he joined the second wave of youth volunteers in the literacy campaign. He received training in a camp called Varadero in northern Cuba and then was posted in a rural village in the west. There, for lack of a teacher in the local school, he taught children during the day and adults in the evenings. He slept in his hammock in a shed without walls and ate whatever the villagers had available.

Emilio and his wife, volunteers in ’61 and teachers for life. (The lantern was given to all volunteers for night classes in villages without electricity.)

I also interviewed several of Emilio’s friends and colleagues at the Cuban Writers Guild in Havana. Each person had a unique experience, but the stories shared certain elements. Most stayed in houses of locals wherever they were sent to teach; most worked in the field during the day and gave classes at night. Some sweltered in farming villages in the lowlands and others shivered on mountainside coffee plantations. Most were challenged by the move from the city to the poor and undeveloped countryside, but all felt extremely inspired by the work they did. At the end of 1961, they told me, it was certified that more than 700,000 individuals had been taught to read and write. The literacy rate reached 96% after the campaign (I was assured multiple times that the only ones who weren’t taught were those who refused to learn and Haitian immigrants who didn’t speak Spanish).

In the following years, thousands more schools were built around Cuba, and many campaign participants (like Emilio) became teachers to staff them. The new schools taught children and provided continuing education classes for adults who had recently learned to read. Work during and after the campaign inspired the development of Yo Si Puedo, a teaching system that today has helped more than six million people in twenty-nine countries learn to read and write.

This campaign was relevant for me because I teach basic Spanish literacy to an elderly Salvadoran lady named Adela here in Dallas. I didn’t teach her to read, but I’ve worked with her on writing and taught her math through a program similar to Yo Si Puedo. I’ve seen the way basic education has changed Adela’s life, and learning about similar work on such a large scale in Cuba was very inspiring to me. This and an independent study on Cuban healthcare gave me ideas for my own future contributions to development in low-resource areas.

I think I could pull off that uniform, don’t you? At the Museo de Alfabetazacion (the museum about the campaign) in Havana.

I learned a ton in Cuba and will return as soon as I can to continue learning. If you’d like to learn more about Cuban culture – movies, art, literature, ethnic heritage, etc. – I hope to do another post about my experience with it. If you’d like to visit Cuba yourself you can finally (as of about August 2016) get a commercial flight, so go for it!

Friends and teachers.jpg
Friends and teachers in Havana!

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