Education for Liberation: behind Cuba's education success  

[This article is based on a presentation by Nick Everett to an Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (WA) public meeting on 10 March 2012.]

Today literacy remains a global challenge. According to UNESCO, nearly 1 billion people - 26% of the world's adult population - can't read and write. The Dakar Framework for Action adopted at the World Economic Forum meeting in Senegal, in 2001, observed:
More than 113 million children have no access to primary education, 880 million adults are illiterate, gender discrimination continues to permeate education systems, and the quality of learning and the acquisition of human values and skills fall far short of the aspirations and needs of individuals and societies.”1
Illiteracy is not just a problem in developing countries. A paper published 10 years ago by the Australian Council of Adult Literacy observed, “In Australia today, one in five adults do not have the literacy skills to effectively participate in everyday life.”
During the “Year of Education” (1961), more than a quarter of a million men, women and schoolchildren were mobilised into a teaching force that taught 707,000 Cubans how to read
Last month, politicians launched the 'National Year of Reading' to encourage Australians to read more. But ever increasing work hours – more than 50 hours per week for one in five working Australians – make reading for pleasure a distant childhood memory for many people in this country. Our education system does not encourage people to read for self-education, but rather to meet the demand for a workforce skilled to help Australian big business compete in a high-tech global marketplace.
For indigenous Australians, especially those living in remote and isolated communities, literacy rates are significantly lower than for non-indigenous Australians. 87% of Indigenous children in regional and remote areas struggle to read and write and fall well below the national literacy benchmarks.
Today, a Cuban literacy program is being piloted in the indigenous community of Wilcannia, in western New South Wales. The program is based on a revolutionary Cuban education method called Yo Si Puedo! (Yes I can), which has been trialled in numerous developing countries including Nicaragua, East Timor and the Dominican Republic.
Jack Beetson, the Aboriginal Adult Literacy Campaign Project Leader, told the ABC:
"I consider literacy is probably the most key human right that any person can have and for people to be denied that right to become literate is a terrible situation, in fact it's an abuse of people's very basic human rights."
Beetson was part of a group monitoring and evaluating the Yo Si Puedo program in East Timor, where, according to Beetson, “It had something like a 98 per cent success rate of people that actually enrolled being literate at the end of that.”
[Yo Si Puedo] is an adult literacy model that's been trialled around the world and this is the first time that it's ever been trialled in Australia,” Beetson said. "It's worked for 50 years [and] it's just never come to Australia, to aboriginal communities.”
Beetson is optimistic that this program will succeed where others have failed, because of the level of community involvement.
Wilcannia [is] leading the way, “ he told the ABC. “I imagine that when this is successful and when people see the rate of success of this campaign then other communities will probably want to do it as well.”
Why is a Cuban literacy program able to offer such hope to a remote indigenous Australian community, or an East Timorese village, on the either side of the world from Cuba? And conversely, why is our own government unable to offer the assistance necessary to eliminate illiteracy in our region, while it comes to the aid of mining companies seeking to exploit the vast mineral and oil wealth of this country and the neighbouring Timor Sea?
Between 2003 and 2007 Venezuela's Mission Robinson taught 3.5 million Venezuelans how to read and write using the Yo Si Puedo method
Cuba's achievements in education – both at home and abroad - are acknowledged in numerous international studies.
Back in 2001, the World Education Forum declared “education is a human right” and committed to achieving six Education for All (EFA) goals and targets for every citizen and for every society. The EFA goals included a commitment to ensuring that by 2015: all children, particularly girls, have access to and complete free, quality primary education; a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy; and gender equality in education. Universal primary education was also adopted as a United Nations Millennium Goal, in September 2000.
The achievement of the goals was acknowledged by the UN as critical to reducing world poverty.
Cuba's achievements measured against the EFA goals far outstrip most developing countries. According to UN statistics: 100 percent of Cubans of 15-24 years of age (both boys and girls) are literate; 96.2 percent of primary school aged children are enrolled; and 92.6 percent were completing their primary education in 2004. Cuba is the only Latin American and non-English speaking Caribbean country considered by UNESCO to have achieved the EFA goals. In addition, Cuba is ranked tenth out of 125 countries in adult literacy, according to UNESCO's measurements.
Cuba was also praised in the United Nations Children’s' Fund (UNICEF)'s The State of the World's Children 2005 report, for choosing to substantially cut defence spending while preserving education expenditure in the 1990s, during a period of financial crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union (formerly Cuba's main trading partner). Only five countries (out of 125) exceed Cuba in public expenditure on education as a percentage of GNP. Levels of public funding for education “are key indicators of government commitment to the goal of education for all,” according to UNESCO.
According to UNESCO data, Cuba has the lowest pupil-teacher ratio of any Latin American or Caribbean country and 100 percent of Cuba's primary school teachers are trained. In a 2001 UNESCO study on educational achievement in language and mathematics in 12 Latin American countries, Cuba's results “dramatically exceeded the other countries” to such an extreme that UNESCO had to create a unique category for Cuba in its analysis of the results.
How has Cuba – a nation pilloried in the Western capitalist media as a tiny tin pot dictatorship – built an education system that far outstrips other developing nations in its achievements?
Cuba's contemporary education system is a product of its socialist economy, state and society.
In the first five years of Nicaragua's Sandinista Revolution (1979-1984), 80,000 volunteers taught 406,000 people to read and write, reducing illiteracy from 50 percent to under 15 percent
In the first six months of 1959, following the overthrow of the US-backed Batista dictatorship, Cuba's revolutionary government: seized the US-owned Cuban Electric Company, reducing electricity rates for rural areas by a half; reduced housing rents by up to 50 percent; and implemented agrarian reform that limiting the amount of land an individual could own and expropriated the rest for “people's farms” and cooperatives. By early 1961, 75 percent of Cuban industry and 30 percent of Cuban land were collectivised.
These reforms were soon followed by Cuba's 1961 National Literacy Campaign, which launched a profound change in schooling in Cuba, for both child and adult learners. According to Carnoy, author of Educational Reform and Social Transformation in Cuba:
Education and educational change in revolutionary Cuba became a symbol of the revolution itself; mass education became a means to mass economic participation and mobilisation... Whereas before 1959 the schools had remained unaltered for a generation, the revolution made the educational system into an institution of constant change and experimentation.”2
The new government inherited an education system that was stagnant and failing to meet the needs of Cuba's majority. Cuba's 1953 national census (the last taken before the 1959 revolution) had revealed that, of the population ten years or older, one quarter had never attended school at all (over half in rural areas) and less than a quarter had completed primary school.
Recognising that the social transformation of Cuba would require a leap forward in education, Fidel Castro told the United Nations General Assembly in 1960:
Next year our people propose to launch an all-out offensive against illiteracy, with the ambitious goal of teaching every illiterate person to read and write.”3
Over a nine month period in 1961, designated the “Year of Education”, more than a quarter of a million men, women and schoolchildren were mobilised into a teaching force that taught 707,000 Cubans how to read. Official illiteracy was reduced from 21 percent of the population to 3.9 percent, the lowest rate in Latin America.
In the midst of the literacy campaign, Cuban exiles launched the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Although it was discovered and thwarted by the Cuban armed forces, escaped mercenaries combed the countryside, harassing the peasants and their literacy teachers.
In a country where the urban and rural poor had long been denied access to education, literacy was empowerment. For the counter-revolutionaries who wanted to see Cuba return to the status quo, teaching literacy to the poor was an affront to the class order. In the film Maestra, released last year on the fiftieth anniversary of the literacy brigade, a volunteer teacher recalls the threats to her host family from gunmen who pounded on their door, demanding, “Bring out the literacy teachers!” This family, like others across the country, put their lives on the line to protect the teachers. Sadly, others were not always able to escape these threats. One teacher, Manuel Ascunce, was killed by insurgents.
The campaign broke taboos, particularly for young women who had been confined – up until that time – in the home. The literacy campaign sought to overcome the divide between the urban and rural population and build a more cohesive national identity. Two Cuban journalists observed:
Our campaign... has put the youth of Cuba in direct contact, on a daily and prolonged basis (almost a year), with the peasants and mountain fold, the poorest and most isolated people on the island. Thus, almost 100,000 scholars and students, aided by more than 170,000 adult volunteers, produced a very real growth in national fusion. This experience in communal life cannot but greatly increase understanding among the classes and strata of the population... The Revolution no longer was a phenomenon reserved for a small group, zealous and active; it was converted into a true mass movement.”4
In 1961, Cuba's revolutionary government nationalised all private schools and education became free and compulsory for the first time. School enrolments and teacher numbers rapidly increased. From the outset, mass education was seen an essential tool of popular empowerment. Writing in 1963, in as essay entitled “Against Bureaucratism”, Ernesto “Che” Guevara explained:
The revolutionary government intends to turn our country into one big school where study and success in one's studies become a basic factor for bettering the individual, both economically and in his moral standing in society, to the extent of his abilities.”5
The 1976 General Education Reform Law established the network of 15 Higher Pedagogical Institutes that operate in Cuba today. These public institutions are, like all educational institutions in Cuba, free. They offer 21 specialised teacher licences (a condition of service in Cuba) in the fields of preschool, primary, secondary and special education. Most students enter teacher education programs after 12 years of primary and secondary education, while a smaller number become technical or vocational teachers after completing specialised secondary education at Institutos Technologicos (Technical Institutes).
Teacher education programs - which include academic work, a variety of supervised field experiences and research - take five years of full-time study to complete. Students teachers must pass exams in history, mathematics and Spanish, as well as an aptitude test and an interview to determine their suitability for the teaching profession.
In a report prepared for the World Bank, in July 2000, Lavinia Gasperini observed that Cuba has achieved not only high levels of participation in education, but also a high quality of education:
The Cuban case demonstrates that high quality education is not simply a function of national income but of how that income is mobilised. A highly-mobilised people can realise high quality education by ensuring the necessary inputs, paying attention to equity, setting and holding staff to high professional standards, and caring for the social roles of key stakeholders-teachers, community members, children.”6
The vast majority of Cuban youth have a say in their educations system through voluntary, mass organisations such as the Organised Pioneer Movement of Jose Marti (OPJM), the Federation of Middle High School Students (FEEM) and the Union of Young Communists (UJC). Regular student meetings, facilitated by the elected class representative, are held in each class in every Cuban secondary school. Students discuss and vote on everything from the food offered for lunch in a school, to the way a particular unit of work has been presented by the teacher. Their decisions must then be addressed by the teaching staff. Regular, delegated national congresses of these mass organisations formulate proposals that are taken directly to parliament and the ministry of education.
Cubans have, throughout the last half century, prided themselves on the contributions their citizens have made to education and healthcare in other post-colonial countries in Africa and Latin America, and more recently in Asia and the South Pacific. While sometimes opposed by professionals in the host countries, Cuban doctors and teachers have worked in Third World conditions where many others in their profession have been unwilling to go.
In the 1980s, when Cuba was still a recipient of Soviet aid, Cuban teachers participated in literacy campaigns in Nicaragua, Grenada and newly-independent Angola. In the first five years of Nicaragua's Sandinista Revolution (1979-1984), 80,000 volunteers taught 406,000 people to read and write, reducing illiteracy from 50 percent to under 15 percent.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1989, Cuba entered what became known as the “Special Period”, when resources, such as oil, spare parts and education materials, became scarce. But despite a 45% contraction in GNP, between 1989 and 1993, education spending was maintained and later increased.
In the post-Soviet era, many post-colonial nations have looked to Cuba's example to expand their own basic education programs. Following a radio-based literacy program in Haiti in 1999, Cuban literacy education researchers from the Pedagogical Institute for Latin America and the Caribbean (IPLAC) developed the literacy teaching method, Yo Si Puedo! Based on the use of audiovisual instruction and a facilitator to pass on knowledge, this unique literacy teaching method has been used in numerous countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the South Pacific.
Over the last decade, Venezuela has seen a dramatic expansion of its education system following a literacy campaign inspired by the Cuban example. Between 2003 and 2007 Venezuela's Mission Robinson taught 3.5 million Venezuelans how to read and write using the Yo Si Puedo! method, making Venezuela only the second country in Latin America (after Cuba) to be declared by UNESCO to be illiteracy free.7
Since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998, Venezuela public expenditure on education has increased considerably, with educational missions providing a primary, secondary and tertiary level education for adults. Social missions providing services such as free health care, subsidised, state-run supermarkets and food kitchens have all contributed to an expansion in education participation amongst poor and marginalised sections of the population.
Venezuela's education ministry describes Venezuela's contemporary education system as “oriented toward the consolidation of a humanistic, democratic, protagonistic, participatory, multi-ethnic, pluri-cultural, pluri-lingual and inter-cultural society” and critiques the former education system as reinforcing “fundamental values of the capitalist system: individualism, egotism, intolerance, consumerism and ferocious competition.”8
In Timor Leste (East Timor), Yo Si Puedo! has been implemented in both Portuguese and Tetum. Reflecting on the challenges of literacy education in post-conflict Timor Leste, University of New England academic Bob Boughton observed :
Timor Leste is not post-revolutionary Cuba, nor should it be forgotten that the Cuban literacy crusade was one part of a total educational strategy. Timor-Leste also differs greatly from Venezuela where Yo Si Puedo! has been deployed to greatest effect. Most importantly, Timor Leste's illiteracy rate is among the highest in Asia, especially in the rural areas where... 80% of the population is not only illiterate, but is dependent on highly labour intensive subsistence agriculture to eke out an extremely impoverished existence.”9
What can we learn from the Cuban example? Does Cuba hold the key to overcoming illiteracy and disadvantage within Australia's indigenous communities, or in developing countries such as our closest neighbour, East Timor?
Initiatives such as the pilot program now operating in Wilcannia, and East Timor's literacy campaign, should be warmly welcomed by those of us committed to a more just and equitable society. But in both countries, a major shift in political, economic and social priorities is required to achieve an equitable, just and educated society.
Here in Australia, indigenous communities have suffered two centuries of colonisation, political disempowerment and economic marginalisation. Such policies continue today in the form of the Northern Territory intervention and the state government’s attempts to offer a monetary compensation package for an extinguishing of all native title claims for generations to come. Indigenous people today have a life expectancy nearly 20 years short of their white Australian counterparts and many of their communities are living in 'fourth world' conditions of poverty.
And in neighbouring East Timor, people struggle to rebuild their nation after have only in the last decade broken free of centuries of colonialism and an Australian-backed Indonesian military occupation.
Ending the impoverishment of these communities, and empowering them to exercise genuine political and economic self-determination, will require a profound and deep social transformation of the society in which we live. Ordinary working people will need to wrestle power from the wealthy capitalist elite that governs this country (as our Cuban brothers and sisters did fifty years ago).
The Cuban and Venezuelan examples demonstrate that – even in the context of underdevelopment - not only is a massive expansion of public education possible, but necessary to overcome the legacy of educational inequity and exclusion that characterises most developing countries. The massive expansion of Venezuela's education system over the last decade, and the new values it has adopted in line with the project of building a “21st century socialism”, demonstrate that Cuba's achievements are not a historic anomaly. Indeed both experiences demonstrates what a people can achieve when they take power into their own hands.
1UNESCO (2000) The Dakar Framework for Action, p8. Retrieved 15 May 2010 from
2Carnoy, M. (1990) “Chapter 6: Educational Reform and Social Transformation in Cuba” , in Carnoy, M., & Samoff, J., Education and Social Transition in the Third World, p158.
3Ibid, p176.
4Quoted in Torres, C.A. (1991), “The State, Nonformal Education, and Socialism in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada”, Comparative Education Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, p115.
5Guevara, E. (2003) “Against Bureaucratism” in Che Guevara Reader: writings on politics and revolution (2nd ed.), p182.
6Gasperini, L. (2000), “The Cuban Education System: Lessons and Dilemmas”, Country Studies: Education Reform and Management Publication Series, Vol. I, No. 5, July 2000.
8Griffiths, T. G. & Williams, J. (2009), “Mass schooling for socialist transformation in Cuba and Venezuela”, p42. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, vol.7. no.2. Retrieved 15 May 2010 from
9Boughton, B. (2009), “Los! Hau Bele. Yo! Si Puedo comes to Timor-Leste”, p4-5. Retrieved 15 May 2010 from
Photos from the forum

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