Pledge Of Allegiance

    I think that I most enjoy Cuba early in the day, when for a few moments before the sun rises above the horizon Havana is a pastel city. From the roof of my casa I can see soft, warm light reflected from the pockmarked coral walls of the main cathedral, making it look a bit like a birthday cake left too long in the sun. Soon the neighborhood will be alive with uniformed children on their way to school; older kids with groups of their peers, younger ones accompanied by a parent, all seemingly looking forward to a day of learning. The commitment to education exemplified by these students might be the most important and enduring legacy of the Cuban Revolution, and is one of the most interesting stories that I have learned about this fascinating place.

    Before 1959, access to education was very unequal here. Affluent Cubans sent their children to private schools at home and abroad, while children of families of lesser means attended a public school system ill equipped to provide a good education. Schools did not exist in many rural areas, so children living outside of cities often could not attend at all. As a result, many Cubans could not read or write, especially in the countryside where the literacy rate was about 68%. In addition, the disparity in educational opportunities between rich and poor, urban and rural, was symbolic of the class divisions that marked the first half of the twentieth century in Cuba, something that Fidel Castro was determined to eradicate. So with the revolution less than two years old, Castro declared in a speech before the United Nations that 1961 would be the “Year of Education” in his country. He went on to say, “in the next year, our people plan to wage a great battle against illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every last illiterate person to read and write.”

    The plan to enact this lofty goal became known as the Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba, the Cuban Literacy Campaign. It would depend heavily upon the participation of citizens, andwas built on two basic socialistic ideas: “if illiterates are to be found among the people, so also are those who can teach literacy,” and “those who know more must teach those who know less.” Following these principles, more than 300,000 literacy workers called alfabetizadores were trained and equipped. Adult volunteers worked primarily in cities, and more remarkably, 100,000 students ranging in age from 10 to 19 years old were sent out into the countryside, where they worked in the fields alongside the campesinos by day, and taught them to read and write at night by the light of a special lantern that would become the symbol of the program. By working with their adult “students” in the fields, a bond of trust was established, as well as a sense of solidarity between learners and teachers.

    Although the goal of 100% literacy within one year was not achieved, the literacy rate throughout Cuba climbed steadily to eventually reach today's level of 99.8%, one of the best in the world. After the campaign ended, the government continued to make education a priority, and a right, of all Cubans. Schools were constructed in rural areas throughout the country to give every child access. Others are found tucked into corners of old buildings, in the plazas popular with tourists, and along busy streets in the built-up urban areas such as Havana.

    One morning I notice a commotion down the street from my casa and see students gathering in front of Simon Rodriguez Primary School. One is responsible for raising the flag to mark the start of the school day while his schoolmates begin singing the country's anthem. As I watch and listen I am reminded of a simpler time in my country, when at the beginning of each day we would stand, place our hands over our hearts, and recite our pledge of allegiance.