Cuban Literacy Campaign

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Cuban Literacy Campaign
Part of the Aftermath of the Cuban Revolution
Literacy - UNESCO - PHOTO0000000135 0001.tiff
Cuban man being educated in a literacy center in 1967 that was built during the literacy campaign.
Date1960 - 1961
  • Conrado Benitez Brigadistas, adolescent volunteer teachers in the countryside.
  • Alfabetizadores populares, adult volunteer teachers in cities.
  • Patria o Muerte Brigadistas, adult working teachers in cities.
  • Brigadistas Obreros, adult organizers of the campaign.
  • International literacy campaigns developed
  • Majority of Cubans made literate
  • Militarization of education in Cuba
  • Parents encouraged to put children into Operation Peter Pan

The Cuban Literacy Campaign (Spanish: Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba) was an eight-month long effort to abolish illiteracy in Cuba after the Cuban Revolution.[1][2] It began in April 1961 and ended on December 22, 1961, successfully raising Cuba's literacy rate to nearly one-hundred percent.[3][2]

Before 1959 the literacy rate for Cuba was approximately 77%, as noted by UNESCO. This was the 4th highest rate in Latin America. The Cuban government of Fidel Castro at Che Guevara’s behest dubbed 1961 the "year of education" and sent "literacy brigades" out into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators, and teach the predominantly illiterate guajiros (peasants) to read and write. By the completion of the campaign, deemed "a remarkable success”, 707,212 adults were taught to read and write, raising the national literacy rate to 96%.[4] By 2010 UNESCO claimed Cuba's literacy rate for those above the age of 15 to be 99 percent. Economists at Oxford University’s Our World In Data project (using a compilation of Oxford, World Bank, and UNESCO resources) calculated that, during that same 50-year period (1960–2010), Bolivia’s literacy rate increased from 44 to 92 percent; Brazil’s from 60 to 91 percent; Colombia’s from 70 to 94 percent and Paraguay’s from 73 to 94 percent. As of 2011, the median reported literacy rate for Latin American and the Caribbean was 93 percent.

In 2011, producer and director Catherine Murphy released the 33-minute documentary Maestra about the Cuban literacy campaign. The film includes interviews with volunteers who taught during the campaign and archival footage from 1961.



The dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by an armed guerrilla movement known as the 26th of July Movement (Movimiento 26 de Julio) on January 1, 1959.[5] The new revolutionary government, led by Fidel Castro, immediately began a series of social and economic reforms. Among these were agrarian reform, health care reform, and education reform, all of which dramatically improved the quality of life among the lowest sectors of Cuban society.[6]


During the turmoil of the first several years of the revolution, the flight of many skilled workers caused a “brain drain.” This loss of human capital sparked a renovation of the Cuban education system to accommodate the instruction of new workers, who would take the place of those who had emigrated from the country.[7]

Ideological developments[edit]

In addition to the renewal of Cuba’s infrastructure, there were strong ideological reasons for education reform. In pre-Revolutionary Cuba, there was a dichotomy between urban citizens and rural citizens (who were often agricultural workers). The Cuban Revolution was driven by the need for equality, particularly among these classes. Before the campaign, the rate of illiteracy among city dwellers was 11%, compared to 41.7% in the countryside.[8]

The Literacy Campaign was designed to force contact between sectors of society that would not usually interact. So much so that the government placed urban teachers in rural environments, where they were pushed to become like the peasants in order to break down social barriers.[9] As Fidel Castro put it in 1961 while addressing literacy teachers, “You will teach, and you will learn.”[6] Volunteers from the city were often ignorant of the poor conditions of rural citizens until their experiences during this campaign. Besides literacy, the campaign aimed to create a collective identity of “unity, [an] attitude of combat, courage, intelligence, and a sense of history.” Politicized educational materials were used to further these ideals.[10] Furthermore, Castro went as far as to state the need for the rural populations to take on the role of teacher, educating the urban populations. The effort was labeled a movement of “the people” and gave citizens a common goal, increasing solidarity.[11]


The first whispers of the Cuban Literacy Campaign came about in the form of a preparatory period that lasted between September and December of 1960.

First Stage[edit]

Following this period, the campaign was set to be implemented through a 3-stage program. This occurred in 1961, a time also known as the 'Year of Education'.[12] The first stage consisted of professional educators training the literacy brigade — known as the Alfabetizadores populares — the curriculum and familiarizing them with the text that would be used to teach their students. This book, which had been written specifically for the purposes of the campaign was titled, Alfabeticemos (English: Let's Teach Literacy), brigadeers were also exposed to the student primer, which would help them to better educate their students. This primer is better known by its title, Venceremos (English: We Shall Conquer). This training time ran from January until late April in 1961.[12][13]

Second Stage[edit]

Beginning in April, Castro elected to close schools down early for the summer. He did so in order to force students to supplement their missed class time by joining the literacy campaign and teach illiterate adults. This plan saw a number of students forced to join the campaign, approximately 105,664, and together they formed the Conrado Benitez Brigadistas. These student were put through a week long intensive to prepare them for the challenge ahead.[13]

Third Stage[edit]

In an effort to intensify the campaign, and ensure its success before the end of the year, Castro began to recruit more "educators" from the factories, and those who enlisted formed the Patria o Muerte worker's brigade. This was the final effort to identify the remaining members of the population who were still illiterate, and find those who were struggling the most. Those who were unsuccessful in the traditional program were placed in acceleration camps to help them overcome illiteracy within Castro's one year timeline. [12][13]



It is estimated that 1,000,000 Cubans were directly involved (as teachers or students) in the Literacy Campaign.[14] There were four categories of workers:

  1. “Conrado Benitez” Brigade (Conrado Benitez Brigadistas)—100,000 young volunteers (ages 10–19) who left school to live and work with students in the countryside. The number of students leaving schools to volunteer was so great that an alternative education was put in place for 8 months of the 1961 school year.
  2. Popular Alphabetizers (Alfabetizadores populares)—Adults who volunteered to teach in cities or towns. It is documented that 13,000 factory workers held classes for their illiterate co-workers after hours. This group includes the individuals who taught friends, neighbors, or family members out of their homes.
  3. “Fatherland or Death” Brigade (Patria o Muerte Brigadistas)—A group of 15,000 adult workers who were paid to teach in remote rural locations through an arrangement that their co-workers would fill in for them, so that the workforce remained strong.
  4. Schoolteacher Brigades—A group of 15,000 professional teachers who oversaw the technical and organizational aspects of the campaign. As 1961 progressed, their involvement grew to the extent that most teachers participated full-time for a majority of the campaign. The "Fatherland or Death" brigade, along with the Schoolteacher brigade, is sometimes simply referred to as the Workers' Brigade (Brigadistas Obreros).[1][7][15][16]

The government provided teaching supplies to volunteers. Workers who traveled to rural locations to teach received a standard grey uniform, a warm blanket, a hammock, two textbooks — Alfabeticemos and Venceremos — and a gas-powered lantern, so that lessons could be given at night after work ended.[17][18]

The campaign aimed to bring Cubans up to a standard reading level. The benchmark was set at achieving the reading ability of a first grader, a limit that allowed the organization to be more efficient and effective.[19]

Gender roles[edit]

While much of the rhetoric surrounding the Cuban Literacy Campaign was focused on the creation of a new and better kind of man, it is important to recognize that with this came revolutionary changes in the roles of women in Cuba. While the campaign was mostly targeted towards men, over half of the educators who volunteered to further the effort were women. Many women also acted as beneficiaries, making them essential to the success of the program and contributors in a number of aspects.[20]

Militarization of education[edit]

Women taking up the role of educators was not a new occurrence in Cuba, but the militarization of the role came about in conjunction with the Cuban Literacy Campaign. Castro himself claimed in a speech given in May of 1961, that the Cuban Revolution had two armies, the militias commonly associated with the revolution, and his "army of literacy teachers" or alfabetizadores who were responsible for waging war against illiteracy.[20]

A traditional responsibility of women was made to fit the Cuban ideals of heroism and service through means of militarization. The volunteers of the campaign were treated much like soldiers, organized into the aforementioned brigades, and were provided clothing resembling military fatigues regardless of their gender. From such a perspective the campaign is shrouded in hyper-masculinity, hiding the fact that women were a large driving force of the effort under the guise of "masculine ideals".[20]


Hundreds of thousands of alfabetizadores marched to the Plaza de la Revolucion on December 22nd 1961, carrying giant pencils, chanting, "Fidel Fidel tell us what else we can do". "Study, study, study!" came the reply.[17]

Attacks against teachers[edit]

Young teachers were sometimes murdered by insurgents in the Escambray rebellion due to their ties to the Cuban government.[21] There are numerous accusations that these militants were backed by the United States Government.[22]


Supporters of the revolution who were too young or otherwise unable to participate in the downfall of Fulgencio Batista saw the campaign as an opportunity to contribute to the success of the new government and hoped to instill a revolutionary consciousness in their students.[7] Many of the instructional texts used during the Literacy Campaign focused on the history of the Revolution and had strong political messages, which made the movement a target of opposition.[10]

Operation Peter Pan[edit]

Some parents who were fearful of their children being put under military supervision and made to leave their homes to teach, had their children leave Cuba through Operation Peter Pan.[23]


"Before 1959 it was the countryside versus the city. The literacy campaign united the country because, for the first time, people from the city understood how hard life was for people before the revolution, that they survived on their own, and that as people they had much in common. This was very important for the new government."

— Luisa Yara Campos, Cuban literacy museum director [17]

Education improvements[edit]

Many of the Literacy Campaign’s volunteers went on to pursue teaching careers, and the rate of teachers is now 11 times higher than it was before the revolution.[24] Before the revolutionary government nationalized schools, private institutions often excluded large segments of society; wealthy Cubans often received exemplary instruction in private schools, while children of the working class received low-quality education or did not attend school at all.[7] Education became accessible to a much larger segment of the population after 1959. The percentage of children enrolled in school in Cuba (ages 6–12) increased dramatically over the years:

  • 1953—56%
  • 1970—88%
  • 1986—nearly 100%[1]

It is estimated that 268,000 Cubans worked to eliminate illiteracy during the Year of Education, and around 707,000 Cubans became literate by December 22, 1961.[25] By 1962, the country’s literacy rate was 96%, one of the highest in the world.[15]

The success of the campaign is owed in part to the fact that it brought the systematic issues in the country to the attention of the government. Major issues like health and healthcare in Cuba, as well the lack of accessibility for child care, and other disadvantages largely determined by class, were proving to be barriers to education in Cuba. This enlightenment allowed them to alter some of the structural issues that were inhibiting the overall education level of Cubans.[26]

International education campaigns[edit]

Cuban literacy educators trained during the campaign went on to assist in literacy campaigns in 15 other countries, for which a Cuban organization was awarded the King Sejong Literacy Prize by UNESCO.[27] Additionally, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Mozambique.[17]


The thank-you letters to Fidel Castro, used by UNESCO to evaluate the success of the campaign in 1964, are kept with photographs and details of all 100,000 volunteers in a museum in La Ciudad Libertad (City of Liberty), which is in Fulgencio Batista's vast former headquarters in the western suburbs of Havana.[17]


  1. ^ a b c Perez, Louis A. Cuba Between Reform and Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
  2. ^ a b "Literacy Campaigns | Concise Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature - Credo Reference". Retrieved 2019-09-26.
  3. ^ Uriarte, Miren. Cuba: Social Policy at the Crossroads: Maintaining Priorities, Transforming Practice. An Oxfam America Report. 2002, pp. 6-12. < Archived 2009-03-03 at the Wayback Machine>, December 2004.
  4. ^ Kellner 1989, p. 61.
  5. ^ "Cuban Revolution." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. 2008. 11 March 2010
  6. ^ a b Serra, Ana. The "New Man" in Cuba Culture and Identity in the Revolution (Contemporary Cuba). New York: University of Florida, 2007. Print.
  7. ^ a b c d Klein, Deborah. "Education as Social Revolution." Independent School 63.3 (2004): 38-47.EBSCO. Web. 20 February 2010.
  8. ^ Jeffries, C. Illiteracy: A World Problem. London: Pall Mall Press. 1967. Print.
  9. ^ KUMARASWAMI, PAR (January 2007). "Cultural Policy, Literature and Readership in Revolutionary Cuba: The View from the 21st Century". Bulletin of Latin American Research. 26 (1): 69–87. doi:10.1111/j.1470-9856.2007.00215.x. ISSN 0261-3050.
  10. ^ a b Chomsky, Aviva, Barry Carr, and Pamela M. Smorkaloff, eds. The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2003. Print.
  11. ^ Supko, Ruth A. Perspectives on the Cuban National Literacy Campaign. Latin American Studies Association. 26 September 1998. Web. 20 February 2010.<>.
  12. ^ a b c Lorenzetto, A., & Neys, K. (1971). Methods and Means Utilized in Cuba to Eliminate Illiteracy: UNESCO Report.
  13. ^ a b c Herman, Rebecca (2012-04-01). "An Army of Educators: Gender, Revolution and the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961". Gender & History. 24 (1): 93–111. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2011.01670.x. ISSN 1468-0424. S2CID 145467599.
  14. ^ (Fagen B).
  15. ^ a b Fagen, Richard R. Cuba: The Political Content of Adult Education. Stanford: Stanford University, 1964. Print.
  16. ^ Supko, Ruth A. Perspectives on the Cuban National Literacy Campaign. Latin American Studies Association. 26 September 1998. Web. 20 February 2010. <>.
  17. ^ a b c d e Latin lessons: What can we Learn from the World’s most Ambitious Literacy Campaign? by The Independent, November 7, 2010
  18. ^ Kozol, J. Children of the Revolution. New York: Delacorte Press. 1978.
  19. ^ Leiner, Marvin (1987), "The 1961 National Cuban Literacy Campaign", National Literacy Campaigns, Springer US, pp. 173–196, doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-0505-5_8, ISBN 9781489905079
  20. ^ a b c Herman, Rebecca (2012-04-01). "An Army of Educators: Gender, Revolution and the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961". Gender & History. 24 (1): 93–111. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2011.01670.x. ISSN 1468-0424. S2CID 145467599.
  21. ^ Alvarez, Angel R. "The Early Years of Terrorist Operations Against Cuba." Injustice in Miami. Cuban News Agency (ACN), 2002. Web. 28 February 2010. Archived 2011-09-28 at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ García, Arelis. "The Crime in Limones Cantero is Still Fresh." Escambray.Cu. Escambray, 11 December 2009. Web. 28 February 2010. < Archived 2010-05-26 at the Wayback Machine>.
  24. ^ Halebsky, Sandor, and John M. Kirk, eds. Cuba Twenty-Five Years of Revolution, 1959-1984. New York: Praeger, 1985. Print.
  25. ^ Bhola, H. S. Campaigning for Literacy. Paris: UNESCO. 1984. Print.
  26. ^ Griffiths, T. G., & Williams, J. (2017). Mass schooling for socialist transformation in Cuba and Venezuela. In International Critical Pedagogy Reader (pp. 64-72). Routledge.
  27. ^ Abendroth, Mark. Rebel Literacy: Cuba's National Literacy Campaign and Critical Global Citizenship. Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, 2009. Print.


External links[edit]

  • Maestra (Teacher). Documentary film by Catherine Murphy. Produced by the Literacy Project and distributed by Women Make Movies. (2013, 32 minutes)
  • Campaña de Alfabetización at EcuRed
  • Maestro Voluntario. Memorias de un Maestro Rural Este interesante testimonio describe los detalles de la vida de los primeros maestros voluntarios en Cuba en 1960. Fue escrito por uno de los maestros voluntarios que vivio la experiencia y conocio a Conrado Benitez pues estudiaban en la misma escuela. La segunda parte de esta memoria [1] Maestro Rural narra los detalles de la vida de estos maestros en el Escambray. Referencia obligadas para los que quieran conocer de esta etapa de la revolucion cubana.