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Cuba: Education and Revolution

Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada (anppp [at] was, for more than fourteen years, Cuba’s Ambassador to the United Nations. Since 1993 he has been president of Cuba’s National Assembly. In 2009 he published in CounterPunch “The Forbidden Heroes,” a series of articles on the Cuban Five, political prisoners held in the United States for the last thirteen years.

In 1795, Father José Agustín Caballero presented the first project for the creation of a system of public education for all the inhabitants of the island of Cuba. It was a visionary idea, but impossible to carry out at that time. The island was a colonial possession of the Spanish Crown, and most of the population was subjected to slavery or made up of Mestizos and freed blacks, the victims of segregation and racial discrimination. Education, within the reach of a very small minority, was confined within the strict canons of scholastic philosophy.

Father Caballero was profoundly critical of that philosophy and of the pedagogy springing from it. This would be the birth of an intellectual movement having decisive importance for the history of Cuba, a movement that would reach its pinnacle with another Catholic priest, Félix Varela, who was Caballero’s disciple and the first Cuban intellectual who fought for national independence and the abolition of slavery.

It is intriguing that it was in Cuba, which, with Puerto Rico, was the last of the Spanish American colonies, where the most solid and deep-rooted questioning of the political system, struggling to keep both islands under its control, occurred. The melding of radical thinking with aspirations for the emancipation of slaves and other excluded sectors of the population took shape on October 10, 1868, the start of the first war for independence and a profound social revolution.

In an earlier article (“Long March of the Cuban Revolution,” Monthly Review 60, no. 8 [January 2009]), I referred to the essential characteristics of the process that led to the rise of the Cuban nation and its liberation movement. It is here that I should like to underline the determining role played by an illustrious group of professors and teachers who not only designed the idea of the Patria with an extremely advanced social content for its time, but who also founded an uninterrupted revolutionary tradition within the Cuban teaching profession.

Public education was a refuge for Cuban patriotism throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But during the U.S. domination of the island, either in a direct form or via repressive and corrupt U.S.-sponsored regimes, it was education that enabled the student movement and the best of Cuban intellectuals to resist. In fact, student movements and Cuban intellectuals participated decisively in the political and social struggles of the Cuban nation both during the long period of Spanish colonialism and U.S. hegemony, initiating and developing socialist and anti-imperialist thinking.

The last Batista tyranny, among its many crimes, unleashed a deep-rooted offensive against education. It encouraged the privatization of schools and universities while denying resources to and fighting against the official institutions—institutions that were to be transformed into the principal centers of popular resistance. Emblematic of his efforts, the dictator destroyed the ancient, two-hundred-year-old Havana University building in order to turn it into a helicopter terminal, which was about to be completed when he was forced to flee the country on January 1, 1959. Before he fled, however, Batista aimed for other bastions of Cuban national culture. His dictatorship suppressed the modest state grant for the ballet company of Alicia Alonso, allowing the company to perform only within the student-sponsored university campus area, until the exceptional artist and her company had to leave for the United States.

Education was the number one priority of the Revolutionary government. One of the government’s first measures was the broad-based Scholarship Plan, directed to facilitate education for thousands of students from the hinterlands who had seen their university studies interrupted because they lacked resources to move to and live in the country’s capital. Several of the largest buildings in Havana were used for their housing, luxurious apartments that had just been built as part of the construction boom that characterized the end of the Batista regime. Those apartments were home to tens of thousands of Cuban university students and many other foreign scholarship students. Fifty years later, they are still being used for that purpose.

At the same time, wide-ranging university reforms began. These included attempts to modernize teaching and teaching methods, to encourage the previously unknown study of some sciences and technologies (the very few Cuban economists, for example, had been, until this time, educated in other countries), and to create university campuses throughout the country, launching what we call the “Universalization of the University.” It was not an easy task to move such profound educational reforms forward in those early years when an intense campaign of isolation and hostility was being unleashed against Cuba from abroad. Notably, this foreign aggression culminated in the Bay of Pigs invasion and acts of sabotage and terrorism on the Island.

However, we attained many admirable results.

Among these, it is worth highlighting the creation of the Santiago de Cuba School of Medicine. At the beginning of the 1960s, doctors were being trained only in the capital, and one-half of the then six thousand medical doctors in Cuba had already emigrated to the United States, attracted by a manipulative policy that created the “brain drain” as an instrument to overthrow the revolutionary system.

The results of that effort can be seen today. Every province has at least one university and one school of medicine. We maintain a health system that is entirely free of cost for patients and covers the entire country and all its people. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors are providing their services, also free of charge, in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Cuba has developed research centers that have discovered, produced, and export vaccines, medicines, and specialized equipment, accomplishments that give the island a leading role in this respect among third world countries. This is especially noteworthy when one takes into account that this world health sector is strongly controlled by monopolies of the great capitalist corporations. Cuba has done all this despite the draconian measures of the economic blockade that the United States has imposed on it for half a century.

This year in Cuba we are celebrating two anniversaries that are closely linked to each other. Fifty years ago we eliminated illiteracy and, at the same time, we won our victory at the Bay of Pigs, where in less than seventy-two hours, a military invasion organized, armed, and led by the CIA was overwhelmingly defeated. In 1961 the Cuban people achieved two hard-to-repeat prizes. Cuba became the first country on the American continent to eradicate illiteracy and the first militarily to defeat imperialism. Ironically, in the same year that UNESCO certified that every Cuban had learned to read and write, President Kennedy ordered the military attack that, if it had been successful, would have returned the people to a past of ignorance and no education.

When the Revolution triumphed in 1959, at least one quarter of the Cuban population was completely illiterate. Many others were considered to be “functionally illiterate,” which means that even though they could decipher and pronounce words, they were unable fully to understand them. Such a reality was striking in a country where there were thousands of jobless teachers and thousands of classrooms without teachers, a country where most of the children were not enrolled in any school and most of those who started education never finished the primary level. The data proving these statements are recorded in the last census carried out by the Batista regime, which was not exactly interested in exaggerating the dramatically unjust social situation prevailing in Cuba at that time. The Cuban literacy campaign offered extraordinary dimensions in terms of public participation. Scores of students, organized in brigades, “invaded” the entire country, armed only with a lantern and a literacy booklet, and they penetrated the most remote areas on their noble mission. One of them, Manuel Ascunce, was murdered by mercenary gangs who also killed his student, the campesino Pedro Lantigua.

Far from impeding the campaign, these crimes served as a stimulus for an even greater mobilization of student literacy workers. Unions also gave a decisive contribution. Conrado Benitez, a worker, was also murdered while teaching reading and writing in the mountains. The names of these martyrs became beloved symbols for the Cuban teaching profession.

Successfully carrying out the literacy program was a solid foundation for a project with an even wider and more sustained scope. The program was followed by the battle to require every single person to complete at least primary education and to promote massive reading through the establishment of a publishing system that has by now printed millions of copies of books of diverse titles that are sold at incredibly low prices. This effort was begun with the publication of Miguel de Cervantes’s timeless The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Having reached half a century ago what is even now one of the UN Millennium goals, a fundamental right still denied to hundreds of millions around the globe, we believe it to be our moral duty to help others do the same. This is internationalism for us, the heart and substance of socialist ideals.

Cuban teachers devised an agile and suitable method for learning how to read and write, the “Yes, I Can” (Yo Sí Puedo) method that has allowed millions of people in other countries to free themselves of illiteracy. Yo Sí Puedo applies the method pioneered by Paulo Freire in Brazil, building literacy around the needs and initiatives of communities themselves, working with people to read the word and the world. Repeating the exploit their parents and grandparents carried out on the island half a century ago, tens of thousands of young Cubans have “invaded” the remotest areas in Latin America and Africa and other continents and embarked on successful literacy campaigns. Venezuela, for example, now is an Illiteracy-Free Territory, officially acknowledged as such by UNESCO.

General literacy has already been reached by important segments of the population in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Ecuador, countries that are marching confidently toward the complete eradication of the scourge of ignorance. The Cuban literacy program Yo Sí Puedo, approved by UNESCO, has been effectively implemented in twenty countries all over the world. To date, eleven versions of the program have been produced: seven in Spanish (for Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, and Uruguay); one in Portuguese; one in English; two recently completed versions for Bolivia in Quechua and Aymara; and one in Creole, used successfully in Haiti. The multiplying effect of this campaign is one of its most beautiful fruits. It is not only Cubans who are part of this noble and challenging quest. Side by side with them today are young Venezuelans, Bolivians, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Ecuadorans, and young people from other nationalities.

Something similar is happening with the massive spread of free medical care. For years, tens of thousands of Cuban doctors have provided their services in many places in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. But now they are not alone in the fulfilment of this task. The Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), located close to the west of Havana, has by now graduated many young people from many countries, including the United States. Some of the graduates collaborate with the Henry Reeve Brigade, a contingent of Cuban doctors that was created in response to the catastrophe resulting from Hurricane Katrina. President George W. Bush, however, refused the Brigade’s offer to help the victims in Louisiana. Unable to come to the aid of the American people, the Henry Reeve Brigade went off to the Himalayas to save Pakistanis affected by the devastating earthquake. More recently, it joined thousands of young Cubans who, since the end of the last century, have been providing the Haitian people with essential life-saving services, and have practically put an end to a terrible cholera epidemic there. Our doctors have been honored in Pakistan and Haiti, and acknowledged by international institutions.

The global corporate media, particularly in the United States, have said very little about this. Not many Americans have heard about these efforts, even though U.S. doctors who received their professional training in Cuba have participated in them. And virtually no one in the United States knows about Henry Reeve, for whom the Brigade was named, a young American who fought and died for Cuban independence in the nineteenth century.

A similar media silence surrounds the internationalist work being done in the field of literacy. Cuban teachers have successfully applied the Yo Sí Puedo method in New Zealand and are right now doing the same in Canada. They do so in collaboration with official authorities and the civil society of both those nations, neither of which can be considered, by any stretch of the imagination, to belong to the underdeveloped world.

The educational work developed by the Cuban Revolution has had to be carried out in exceptionally difficult conditions as a result of the blockade or, to be more specific, the economic war unleashed by Washington in the days of the Eisenhower administration and which is fully in effect today under the Obama administration. One has to remember that this economic war was conceived from the beginning as a genocidal war, since its purpose has always been to make the Cuban people suffer. Stated in the official language of some unclassified U.S. government documents, the purpose of that policy has been, and still is, to cause “disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship…denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” (Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State; John P. Glennon, et al., eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba [Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991], 885.)

Faced with such a challenge, how do we spread education services? How do we multiply the number of schools, laboratories, and libraries? How do we guarantee necessary equipment and supplies?

The cost has been greater for Cubans than for people of any other country. With access to the U.S. market prohibited, essential imports for construction, maintenance, and equipping of the education facilities have had to be sought in far-off markets, and Cubans suffer from the inevitable extra costs of freight and transportation. These costs are increased even more by the so-called Cuba risk clause, the sanctions price that Washington imposes on foreign companies that do business with the island. We Cubans have to pay above the cost for the same products made by any other country. Even so, we face an additional risk: at any moment an international trade deal can be aborted if any of the factors involved in the manufacture or marketing of the product should be acquired by an American company. We have lived through this experience many times in many years.

In spite of it all, Cuba continues in its endeavor to bring education and culture to all. Significant achievements have been attained, even when the country suffered from a profound economic crisis in the 1990s as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the intensification of the American blockade with the Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) acts.

In those especially difficult years, government-backed initiatives blossomed. And, as they were actively promoted by the academic community and the teaching profession, these projects have been constantly enriched. We should emphasize the incorporation into daily life of the most diverse artistic and cultural manifestations, with the arts instructor movement brought back to life in all the country’s communities.

Every year Havana brings together thousands of specialists and professionals from Latin America and other regions to discuss today’s problems and challenges faced by universities and education throughout the world. The Book Fairs, whose twentieth anniversary has just concluded, cover the entire Cuban geographical extension, with millions of people taking part, buying books at low prices and encountering and chatting with writers and artists.

Two of Cuba’s five national TV channels are dedicated to education. Backed by printed material for mass circulation, millions of people have the possibility of learning a broad spectrum of subjects that include history, economics, geography, sciences, literature, the visual arts, music, and foreign languages.

We have traversed a long and eventful path since Father Caballero dared to dream of a Cuba where education would be a common heritage from which nobody would be excluded. Today, Cuban society is going through a period of reflection where we are all openly and democratically discussing about how we can preserve the best of a work that has cost us so much to attain. We are endeavoring to save our socialist project, the socialism that is possible in a besieged country and in a world going through a profound crisis where human survival is seriously threatened.

That national debate was prominent in April 2011 at the VI Communist Party Congress. It is a debate in which every Cuban has taken part. We have to “change everything that should be changed,” as comrade Fidel Castro has proclaimed on more than one occasion. Let there be no doubt. Cuba of the future shall continue with education as one of its most valuable jewels. Education par excellence, for all, will continue to be the guide and sustenance of the country’s emancipation.

2011, Volume 63, Issue 03 (July-August)
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