23rd December 2021
Literacy brigades celebrate in the Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, 22nd December 1961
On the 22nd December 2021, Cuba marked the 60th anniversary of the literacy campaign initiated following the 1959 revolution which rid the island of the US backed dictator, Batista. Very early on in the revolution the Cuban leaders realised that without literacy there could be no progress, that the defence of the revolution and the possibilities for social and economic progress depended upon a literate and educated population.
The Year of Literacy was declared in 1961 and an army of young people and students, mainly from Cuba’s cities who had some literacy skills, were transformed into an army of volunteers deployed across Cuba. Organised into four brigades, to target both urban and rural areas in Cuba, the volunteers were up against more obstacles than just the endemic illiteracy which years of dictatorship had caused.
The defence of the country was a major concern, with counter-revolutionary groups active in the mountains of Las Villas and Oriente, in what turned out to be preparation for the US led Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. Not all of the literacy teachers and students survived the counter-revolutionary activity with a number being murdered by the reactionaries, determined to turn back the clock in Cuba.
Nevertheless, a teaching force of 268,420 people were organised across the four brigades with a mission to tackle the 14% illiteracy rate, consisting of almost 1 million people, throughout 1961. By the end of that year the brigadistas had brought that rate down to just 3.9%, teaching over 700,000 Cubans to read and write during the course of the campaign.
One student pronounced that,
“It was a year without Sundays or parties: it was a year for the literacy campaign.”
It was a year which transformed the lives of many of Cuba’s young people and laid the basis for the survival of the revolution, in spite of the 60 year long illegal economic blockade by the United States, which has slowed Cuba’s development.
Cuba’s leaders recognised that without a literate population it was not possible to train people as teachers, scientists, doctors or engineers. It was not possible to generate great art, music or literature. The Year of Literacy was one of the key building blocks which has led to Cuba’s healthcare provision being famed across the world, for its infant mortality rate being lower than that of the United States, for the international campaign to award the Henry Reeves Medical Brigades the Nobel Peace Prize, for their work in supporting other developing countries at times of epidemic or catastrophe.
The emphasis which Cuba has placed upon the development of the biotech sector, at the encouragement of the late Fidel Castro in the 1980’s, has resulted in Cuba being the only developing nation to have produced its own vaccines against the Covid-19 virus, vaccines that it is prepared to share, without profit, with other under resourced and developing nations.
Cuba has vaccinated more of its citizens against Covid-19 than most of the world’s largest and richest nations. Over 90% of the population have received at least one dose and 83% are now fully inoculated. Infections and deaths have reduced significantly in recent weeks, falling to just 1% of their peak in August.
“It is a truly remarkable accomplishment, given the size of Cuba and also the US embargo that restricts their ability to import”, said William Moss, Director of the John Hopkins International Vaccine Access Center, a US based university group that works to ensure equitable access for low-income countries.
Like elsewhere, the Omicron variant means that Cuba faces a new challenge. The ongoing embargo by the US does not help, as access to vital resources remain limited and costly, through having to trade through third parties. The battle may not be over, but the struggle continues.
There can be no doubt that Cuba’s current struggles will take heart and inspiration from the Year of Literacy in 1961 and the campaign which helped shaped modern Cuba.
On 5th November 1961 Melena del Sur was proclaimed the first town free of illiteracy, followed by municipalities and provinces across the nation. On 16th December the literacy teachers began arriving in Havana from across Cuba. On the 22nd December, at a massive rally in the Plaza de la Revolucion, Cuba was proclaimed a territory free of illiteracy.