The Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961

Published March 2, 2020

“When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program.”  – Bernie Sanders 2/23/2020

Notice that Sanders blurs how Castro came into office. Sanders doesn’t say when he “came into power.” Sanders says he when he “came into office.” Sanders is not stupid. He means to legitimize the Castro’s seizing and retaining of power by force.

Having legitimized Castro’s seizing and retaining of power by force, Sanders asks what did Castro do after coming into power? Castro actually did a number of things. A short list might include he arrested political enemies, torturing and killing many of them; he nationalized much of the economy, without compensation to property owners; he instituted a centrally-planned economy; he suspended civil liberty; he invited the Russians to install nuclear-capable missiles on his island; and, he supported terrorist insurgencies in Latin America. But, Sanders wants to mention only one thing: Castro’s literacy campaign.

With regard to the missiles, we, the American people, did not know in real time that they were armed. In the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we were told that we had to act quickly before the missiles would become operational. We, the American people, did not know, and possibly our government did not know, that the nuclear warheads were already in Cuba, and that the missiles could be launched upon order. Castro knew these things and asked Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to launch them.

Castro understood that nuclear war would result in perhaps a third of the United States being destroyed, and his country being completely destroyed; but, that was a small price to pay “para la causa” (for the cause of communism). Khrushchev, who commanded Soviet forces at Stalingrad during World War II, thought Castro was insane. Khrushchev believed that a centrally-planned economy would outperform a market-oriented economy. This is what he meant when he said “We will bury you.” He meant with toasters, refrigerators and other consumer goods. If you actually believe in centrally-planning, you would not risk nuclear annihilation, you would instead be patient and wait for the collapse of capitalism. Khrushchev was wrong about central-planning, but he wasn’t crazy.

Realizing that Castro was crazy, it was easy for Khrushchev to make an offer to President John F. Kennedy that was fair and face-saving to each; and, that offer being accepted, to get his nuclear bombs off of Castro’s island.

What about the literacy campaign? By acting as though this one thing or any short-list of self-selected things is all that counts, Sanders plays the game: any good that comes out of communism (no matter the bad) justifies communisms and any bad that comes out of capitalism (no matter the good) condemns capitalism. This is not scientific. A scientific approach would look at a broad-based measure such as GDP per capita or, even better, at an index of the quality of life including GDP per capita, but also including things such as life expectancy, civil liberties, equal rights and personal safety. Among developing countries, the literacy rate is part of the Human Development Index, itself developed by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics.

Literacy campaigns have long been part the communist plan to both promote the conditions of the masses and to indoctrinate them. During the 1920s, the communists began a literacy campaign in Russia that included adult education and increased investment in schooling. Assessment of the success of this campaign is complicated by the fact that the prior Tsarist government had been itself promoting literacy, which effort was disrupted by World War I. Similarly, Soviet efforts regarding literacy were disrupted by World War II. But, by the 1960s, it was becoming clear that the Soviets were making impressive gains in such things as universal education. Even so, the extent of their gains was questionable because their statistics weren’t reliable.

The same thing could be said of the People’s Republic of China nowadays. Since Deng Xiaoping, that country has made enormous progress in eliminating abject poverty. There are today many Chinese billionaires and a burgeoning upper-middle class. But, there are questions as to the extent of their gains because of unreliable statistics.

Turning to Cuba, at the time of the revolution, the country was one of the more prosperous nations of Latin America. Literacy was relatively high for that region. Even so, literacy in Cuba appears to have faltered during the civil war that was part of the revolution. The literacy campaign of 1961 mobilized a large number of literate persons (not necessarily professional teachers) to teach adult illiterates to read. Within a few months, many of these adult learners were able to compose a letter to Castro thanking him for being able to read, and the country was declared free of illiteracy. Relying on the country’s statistics, its literacy rate jumped ahead of those of its former peers in Latin America.

Literacy campaigns have been instituted in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, as well as well as elsewhere in the world, and not always by radical socialist governments. The campaigns have varied in the success, from negligible to notable. In some cases, apparent success was later shown to be fake. Cuba’s success is sometimes attributed to it being monolingual and to having, perhaps, the easiest language to learn to read. But the excitement attached to the revolution should also be mentioned.

The truth is, literacy is fast being eradicated in the world, with or without literacy campaigns. In the absence of schools, many people learn to read on their own to take advantage of the opportunities offered by, and to meet the challenges of the modern world. While many precocious and home-schooled children enter formal schooling already able to read, almost everybody learns to read by the sixth grade.

The problem of indoctrination isn’t peculiar to communist literacy campaigns. The industrial revolution was spurred in part by the literacy campaigns of Protestant Christians wanting all children to be able to read the Bible. Through a hodge-podge of public schools, itinerant teachers independently contracting with parents, and Sunday schools, northern Europe became free of illiteracy before universal education. The states of New England, and then of the entire North similarly became free of illiteracy before universal education. Soon after emancipation, freedom schools sprung up like so many mushrooms in the South. Just as Benjamin Franklin said, “save and be free;” Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”