Education for liberation: behind Cuba's education success


According to UNESCO, nearly 1 billion people – 26% of the world's adult population – can't read or write. The Dakar Framework for Action adopted at the World Economic Forum 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.”

Illiteracy is not a problem only in underdeveloped 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”.

In February, 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. Our education system does not encourage people to read for self-education, but rather to meet the demand for a skilled workforce.

For indigenous Australians, especially those living in remote and isolated communities, literacy rates are significantly lower than for non-indigenous Australians. Eighty-seven percent of Indigenous children in regional and remote areas struggle to read and write and fall well below the national literacy benchmarks.

Pilot program

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 underdeveloped 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, he said, “It had something like a 98% success rate …

“[The Cuban program] 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. 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 other side of the world from Cuba? 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?


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 every society. The goals included a commitment to ensuring by 2015: that all children, particularly girls, have access to and complete free, quality primary education; a 50% 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 goals were acknowledged by the UN as critical to reducing world poverty.

Cuba’s achievements of the EFA goals far outstrip most underdeveloped countries. According to UN statistics, 100% of Cubans of 15-24 years of age (both boys and girls) are literate; 96.2% of primary school aged children are enrolled; and 92.6% 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 10th out of 125 countries in adult literacy, according to UNESCO.

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 cut defence spending substantially 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. Public funding for education is a key indicator 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% of Cuba’s primary school teachers are trained. In a study of educational achievement in language and mathematics in 12 Latin American countries, Cuba’s results “dramatically exceeded the other countries”, to such an extent that UNESCO had to create a unique category for Cuba in its analysis of the results.

How has Cuba 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 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 half; reduced housing rents by up to 50%; and implemented an agrarian reform limiting the amount of land an individual could own and expropriating the rest for “people’s farms” and cooperatives. By early 1961, 75% of Cuban industry and 30% of Cuban land were collectivised.

Literacy campaign

These reforms were followed by the 1961 National Literacy Campaign, which launched a profound change in schooling, for both child and adult learners. According to Martin 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.”

The new government inherited a stagnant education system that was failing to meet the needs of the majority. Cuba’s 1953 national census (the last taken the 1959 revolution) had revealed that, of the population 10 years of age or older, one quarter had never attended school at all (over half in rural areas) and fewer 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.” Over nine months 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% of the population to 3.9%, the lowest rate in Latin America.

In the midst of the literacy campaign, Cuban counter-revolutionaries launched the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Although it was 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, teaching literacy to the poor was an affront to the class order. In the film Maestra, released last year on the 50th 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. One teacher, Manuel Ascunce, was killed by the reactionaries.

The campaign broke taboos, particularly for young women who had previously been confined to the home. It 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 folk, 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.”

‘One big school’

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”, 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”.

The 1976 General Education Reform Law established the network of 15 higher pedagogical institutes that operate in Cuba today. These public institutions, like all educational institutions in Cuba, are free. They offer 21 specialised teacher licences (a condition of service) 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 technical institutes.

Teacher education programs – which include academic work, a variety of supervised field experiences and research – take five years of full-time study. Student teachers must pass exams in history, mathematics and Spanish, as well as an aptitude test and an interview to determine their suitability for teaching.

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: “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.”

The vast majority of Cuban youth have a say in their education system through voluntary mass organisations such as the Organised Pioneer Movement of Jose Marti, the Federation of Middle High School Students and the Union of Young Communists. 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 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.

Aiding others

Throughout the last half century, Cubans have prided themselves on their contributions to education and health care 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% to under 15%.

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 educational 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 developed the literacy teaching method Yo Si Puedo. Based on the use of audiovisual instruction and a facilitator to pass on knowledge, this unique method has been used in numerous countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the South Pacific.

Over the last decade, Venezuela has dramatically expanded its education system following a literacy campaign inspired by the Cuban example. Between 2003 and 2007 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.

Since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998, Venezuelan public expenditure on education has increased considerably, with educational missions providing primary, secondary and tertiary education for adults. Social missions providing services such as free health care and subsidised state-run supermarkets and food kitchens have all contributed to an expansion in education participation among the poor and marginalised.

Venezuela’s education ministry describes its contemporary education system as “oriented toward the consolidation of a humanistic, democratic, protagonistic, participatory, multi-ethnic, pluri-cultural, pluri-lingual and inter-cultural society”. It critiques the former education system as reinforcing “fundamental values of the capitalist system: individualism, egotism, intolerance, consumerism and ferocious competition.”

In Timor Leste, 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.”

What we can learn

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 East Timor?

Initiatives such as the pilot program 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.

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 extinguish 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.

In East Timor, people struggle to rebuild their nation after having 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 society. Ordinary working people will need to wrest power from the wealthy capitalist elite that governs this country (as our Cuban brothers and sisters did 50 years ago).

The Cuban and Venezuelan examples demonstrate that a massive expansion of public education is not only possible but also necessary to overcome the legacy of educational inequity and exclusion. The massive expansion of Venezuela’s education system over the last decade, and the new values it has adopted in line with building a “21st century socialism”, demonstrate that Cuba’s achievements are not a historic anomaly. Both experiences demonstrate what a people can achieve when they take power into their own hands.

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

Direct Action – March 25, 2012

International News & Analysis