Fidel Castro told the United Nations General Assembly that his country would be the
first in the Americas that would not have a single illiterate citizen — que no tiene
un solo analfabeto. The speech came in 1960, a year after Castro led the Cuban revolution.
The Cuban National Literacy Campaign began in 1961.
Students as young as eight and into their teens were recruited as brigadistas, trained
and sent out across the island nation to teach the campesinos to read and write. In
addition to their teaching materials, the brigadistas were each given a lantern.
Cuba lagged as much in electrification as it did in literacy.
By the end of 1961, Castro declared the literacy campaign a success. The country’s
literacy rate had reached 96%. Today, Cuba claims to be 99.8% literate, one of the
highest literacy rates in the world. The U.S. literacy rate is 99%. Both figures
are from the Central Intelligence Agency web site.
The purposeful creating of a highly literate society is impressive, regardless of
what you may think of Castro, his regime or, for that matter, President Obama’s decision
to improve relations with Cuba after more than half a century of animosity and isolation.
We can save Cuban-American relations, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the
U.S. trade embargo, the Mariel boatlift, Elian Gonzalez, cigars, rum and baseball
for another day.
I learned about the 1961 literacy effort by visiting the National Museum of the Campaign
of Literacy in Havana in mid-May. I’d accompanied USC president Harris Pastides for
meetings at the University of Havana. As Cuba opens up — it’s already happening —
there is a value in developing exchange opportunities for students and faculty at
the two universities. We’ve invited a University of Havana journalism professor to
visit us in the fall. I hope we can take students there by Maymester 2017.
U of H’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities, somewhat like our college, includes
faculties for both journalism — periodismo — and information science. So, I asked
to visit the literacy museum.
After the success of the 1961 campaign, Cuba exported its literacy program to other
countries in the Americas and in other languages under the title: “Yo, Si Puedo.”
The English version — “Yes, I Can” — ends with the encouragement to “Read Every Day.”
It’s exactly what we ask the children of South Carolina to do when they make The Cocky
Promise during a Cocky’s Reading Express event — read every day to your mom, your
dad, your brother, your sister, your cat, your dog. “I promise, Cocky.”