Much can be said about Cuba – it is a land filled with rhythm and soul, color and tradition, a land whose people smile brighter and laugh harder than most others’, a land of inviting, white beaches and savory, rich flavors. But few may know that Cuba is also synonymous with exceptional education.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations Institute for Statistics, Cuba’s literacy rate is an astonishing 99.8 percent, making it the 2nd highest literacy rate in the world!
Ever since the Cuban Revolution in 1961, education has been nationalized, which means it’s been free to all Cuban people, regardless of income; this includes all materials such as books and uniforms, granted they are available.
Even with recent cuts, education expenditures continue to receive high priority, as Cuba spends 10 percent of its central budget on education, compared with 4 percent in the United Kingdom and just 2 percent in the United States. It is often considered the best education and best medical care in Latin America.
This, however, wasn’t the case before the Cuban Revolution.
Before 1959, the official literacy rate in Cuba was somewhere between 60-76%, due to the limited educational access in rural areas and lack of instructors. As a result, the Cuban government of Fidel Castro dubbed 1961 the "Year of the Education,” and started the literacy campaign, sending people out into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the predominately illiterate guajiros (peasants) to read and write. The campaign was a remarkable success; 250,000 volunteers joined the extraordinary efforts, which resulted in teaching over 700,000 people to read and write in one year. 100,000 of the teachers were under 18 years old, over half were women. This raised the national literacy rate to an astonishing 96%.
The film MAESTRA, written and directed by Catherine Murphy, explores this story through the personal testimonies of the young women who went out to teach literacy in rural communities across the island - and found themselves deeply transformed in the process.
“The Cuban Literacy Campaign is an important but little-known chapter in the history of the Americas. Catherine Murphy has created a project with rare and intimate access to this history. Her documentary MAESTRA brings together moving interviews with living witnesses, beautiful archival film footage, and Catherine's compelling storytelling. Based on personal testimonies of teachers and students from the campaign, her film will preserve the oral histories of a generation that will soon be gone. The historical significance of this archive - and its lessons for the present - cannot be overstated.”
Howard Zinn, Author of "A People's History of the United States"
Cuban literacy educators trained during the campaign later went on to assist in literacy campaigns in fifteen other countries. The concept was also exported in dozens of other nations, confirming once again its astounding success.
Added to that, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Mozambique.
InsightCuba President, Tom Popper, recalls a poignant encounter with the director of the Literacy Museum in Havana.
“She had a sparkle in her eyes when she talked about it; there was passion and meaning and so when she asked if anyone had anymore questions, I raised my hand and told her: this topic is very close to you, I can tell. Why?”
“I was one of those peasant farmers that had a teenager come to my home and teach me how to read and write. I was the first person in the history of my family to learn how to read and write,” she replied, as she was fighting back tears, as well as everyone else listening.
“What did they mean to you?” Tom then asked, to which she replied:
“I felt human. Better, I felt Cuban.”