By Yenia Silva Correa, Granma International, January 5, 2012
As the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003 - 2012) is about to come to an end, the number of people in the world who are still illiterate is alarming: 64.7 million children have received no formal schooling and 793 million adults remain illiterate.
Cuba undertook a year-long national literacy campaign which was completed on December 22, 1961 with Cuba being proclaimed a territory free of illiteracy.
The campaign's organizational structures were put in place starting January 1961. In order to teach the country’s 1.045 million illiterates to read and write, volunteer teachers' brigades were organized: the Conrado Benítez, Frank País and Patria o Muerte Brigades, which included schoolteachers and both young and adult volunteers.
Those who were already professional teachers were in charge of training the volunteers – most of them teenagers and more than half of them young women – and of preparing and drafting the instructional booklets to be used.
However, the project to liberate the country of illiteracy was no bed of roses. The Cuban Revolution, still in its infancy in 1961, was confronting counterrevolutionary bands in the Escambray mountains (in the center of the country), had proclaimed the socialist nature of the Revolution and had emerged victorious from the Bay of Pigs mercenary invasion; however, nothing stopped the advance of the literacy campaign.
Not even the murder of young volunteer teachers working in rural areas diminished the enthusiasm of those who had assumed with determination one of the noblest efforts within the revolutionary process, and one which was crucial to social justice.
After 12 months, Fidel Castro's commitment to the UN General Assembly in September 1960, "…next year, our people are set to wage a battle against illiteracy!" was fulfilled.
The national illiteracy rate fell to 3.9% for a population of more than 6.9 million inhabitants. This heroic deed would have been impossible without the contribution of Cuban and Latin American students, workers and teachers and the political will of the Cuban leadership.
Many of the literacy teachers later became the professional teachers of many generations of Cubans, and repeated that experience on internationalist missions as teachers in educational brigades in other countries
Others went into different professions, but never forgot the days when they left the cities with their primers and manuals in hand to teach others to read and write.
That period initiated a progressive increase in national educational levels which characterized the following decades of the Revolution. Schools, teachers and scholarships at all levels mushroomed throughout the country and Cuban teachers could be found throughout Africa and Latin America.
A RIGHT FOR ALL
While a lack of state policies means that literacy efforts are not a priority in many parts of the world, UNESCO acknowledges that this is a human right which paves the way for formal education.
For Cuba, the literacy campaign experience did not end in December of 1961, on the contrary. At the beginning of this century action was needed in relation to adult education in other countries and thus the Yo si puedo (Yes, I Can) program came into being.
Following the basic principles of the Literacy Campaign, the Yo si puedo project has been implemented in more than 30 countries, and in the case of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, was the tool utilized to eradicate illiteracy.
In 2006, the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize was awarded to the Cuban Youth and Adult Literacy program. However, no recognition can be greater than having taught 3.5 million people to read and write; many of them are already receiving the follow-up Yo si puedo seguir (I Can Do More) program, which totally completes their elementary education.