Cuba’s Museum of Literacy

The site of the old Columbia Barracks in Havana, home to 8,000 soldiers and its commandante, Fulgencia Batista, a brutal and despised despot, was turned into an educational campus following the revolution. Old barracks buildings now house kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools, vocational programs, and a university program training teachers. Batista’s former home in the barracks (below) now serves as the administrative center for these schools.

One of the buildings tells the story of a remarkable transformation that took place in Cuba in a 12-month period. Fidel Castro told the United Nations during a two-hour speech that, “Cuba will be the first country in Latin America in which it will be possible to say that not a single person is illiterate.” How did he pull this off? Rector Risa Campos (below) led us through the story.

An educational miracle transformed Cuban society through an army of 334,000 volunteers, drawn from students, social workers, academics, and housewives. This army include 100,000 students between the ages of 10 and 16 who went out into the rural areas to provide instruction in reading and writing to Cuba’s peasants. (Campos, above, is standing beside a mannequin modelling the uniform worn by these students.) Below is a picture of an 8-year-old volunteer.

One 102-year-old woman learned to read and write for the first time (below). Another elderly man wrote to Castro that he had not truly felt like a Cuban until he became literate.

On December 22, 1961, according to Campos, just 3% of Cubans could not read or write, a figure that had stood at 24% on January 1. A year later, with illiteracy defeated, free public education for all was launched for the first time in Cuba. The literacy rate in Cuba today is 98.8%.

Cuba subsequently launched programs throughout Latin America and in parts of Eastern Europe. Campos estimated that Cuba has helped more than 10 million people learn to read around the world with fully one million of them continuing their education through at least sixth grade. By way of thanks, the Roundtable presented Campos with a modest gift of school materials for students (below).

The record is a stunning testament to what a quiet and charming, queen-like little woman can accomplish when she sets her mind to a task with confidence, determination, and good humor.

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