Bernie Sanders’ comments on literacy improvements in Cuba under Castro will continue to be a campaign issue. With this in mind, we should be clear in our minds about the Cuban experience.
When Castro came to power after the successful overthrow of the Batista regime, Batista himself having twice come to power through military coups, the rate of illiteracy in Cuba was close to 24%. Education in Cuba was highly stratified: upper middle and upper class children generally attended elite private schools or attended schools outside of the Nation while urban working class kids attended public schools. In the rural communities, schools were poorly attended: a significant number of students did not complete a primary school education. Castro, who was genuinely repulsed by the living conditions of the rural Cuban population where unemployment ranged from 9% during the sugar harvest to 20% outside of the harvest time, believed only a well educated people can develop the confidence needed to free themselves from the bondage of an oppressive ruling elite. With this in mind, the Castro regime set about to identify who was illiterate and who was literate in Cuban society.
The regime successfully identified 985,000 illiterate adults. The regime then assembled 268,420 literate adults and young people who volunteered their time to teach the illiterate to read and write. Within one year, the illiteracy rate in Cuba declined to less than four percent. Castro instituted mandatory free primary and secondary school education for all Cuban children. College education, including graduate school education, was made free to all Cuban citizens who academically qualified for study at this level. Today the rate of literacy in Cuba is virtually 100%. Cuba is among the most well educated nations on the planet. So yes, Bernie Sanders was correct when he stated Castro did much to improve literacy in Cuba. He did more than this, Castro revolutionized education in Cuba.
So much so, that Cuba has had an abundance of doctors. After the 1999 rise to power by Chavez in Venezuela, Chavez, who also substantially cut the rate of illiteracy in Venezuela, sought also to provide universal healthcare to the Venezuelan people. Universal healthcare was enshrined in the Venezuelan constitution when it was rewritten in 1999 after Chavez came to power. Venezuela, with an abundance of oil, and Cuba, with an abundance of doctors, worked out an exchange. Cuba would send doctors to Venezuela, Venezuela would send oil to Cuba.
The materials used in the Cuban literacy programs consisted of topics of National and International interests. Some would argue the selection of political or ideological content for reading purposes amounts to propaganda and this seems like a fair accusation. By implication, however, the accusation naturally draws a comparison to a system without propaganda: a state of society which does not exist. In the U.S. the message preached is American ideological supremacy, consumption, religious fundamentalism, and militarism. There is no end to the themes which compete for our minds. Much of the propaganda in the U.S. occurs within the private sector. This includes: corporate advertisement which convinces us that the path to a better life lies in greater consumption, mega sports events which subject us to Color Guards and military flyovers, and entertainment which perpetuate the American myths of moral superiority in a world of evil adversaries. Much Western propaganda promotes the “efficiency” of the free market. Capitalist nations, with its strong private sector orientation, naturally condemns propaganda which supports the public sector. We all, however, regardless of the governing forms under which we operate, are subject to propaganda.
One can take issue with Castro Cuba’s economic performance, the potential of which we will never fully understand due to U.S. efforts to sabotage the Cuban economy. One should absolutely condemn Castro’s use of violence in his rise to power and the execution of political dissidents subsequent to this rise to power, but in doing so one should also condemn the U.S. exercise of its massive military machine in the maintenance of its preferred world order. One can argue against Castro’s use of education as a tool of propaganda, but this belies the fact that we are all subject to equal doses of propaganda. One cannot, however, authentically argue that Sanders was wrong to recognize the improvements in literacy achieved by the Castro regime.
It is very typical in the political realm to demonize or to offer sainthood to political actors. U.S. efforts to demonize Castro have led us to the the very unfortunate situation wherein we are unable to recognize the good achieved by Castro. All systems presume a level of ideological supremacy and by their nature oppress some and liberate others; all systems demonstrate a mixture of good and evil. Recognition of this truth would enable us to move forward in a peaceful and cooperative manner with other nations on the planet. Bernie Sanders’ recognition that Castro did much to greatly elevate literacy levels in Cuba supports this effort. Sanders should be applauded, not vilified, for his courage to speak the truth about the advances in literacy under the Castro regime.