I’ve learned how to read and write

He actually didn’t know what all that meant. The uniform, the beret, the lantern, all that seemed as big as the very sun to him. She, on the other hand, was the same sister as always, but now wearing attire very different from the Sunday clothes to go to church. The days prior to this image had been an almost all-out war at home. She had set her mind on leaving to go teach how to read and write, she didn’t know who or where, while her mother tried to show how hard it would be for her and the father listed once and again the tremendous dangers of that different and faraway world.

Then I saw her return. She was the same but thinner, with many necklaces made from strange seeds that hung from the neck where the chain with the crucifix and Our Lady of Charity medallion continued tangled. She came with a thick notebook full of words of thanks and love, written in large letters. She came with the same eyes, with another light.

Neither the sister nor he understood what was happening that year. Both of them didn’t find out until much later the transcendental meaning of those months of separation, or the true greatness of those letters, or the tremendous challenge that overcoming illiteracy represented.

Neither did they know then how innovative it had been, not the idea of teaching more than a million people how to read in barely a year, but rather how it was achieved, with the mass support of thousands of Cuban, young and not so young, from the middle or lower class. They were even less aware that they had been witnesses and protagonists in Cuba’s and Latin America’s most important cultural event in many years.

Knowledge is like the light, it takes up and fills all places and makes them bigger. Knowing how to read turns into wanting to read and later into wanting to continue learning. Moreover, today it is a right. That effort became today’s country’s competitive advantage, very easy to say now, very difficult at that time.

Compared to light, knowledge needs concrete actions from human beings and from the governments of countries to reach everyone. For us Cubans, with the start of the 1970s, knowledge became as natural as light. We never asked ourselves from where it came, we were barely aware of how much wellbeing it gives us. Many, especially those who had the luck of participating in that epic campaign, understood it almost as a “genetic” inheritance.

By the late 1950s, however, average schooling in Cuba did not exceed third grade. In the 1980s it was already ninth grade and today in 2015 it exceeds 10th grade.

We economists almost always have the professional atrophy of wanting to quantify everything. Econometric models have even been designed and they are “almost” able to measure the impact of education in the GDP, to place in its just place that production factor. But what we are not able to do, neither economists, nor sociologists, nor any other professional, is measure the impact that knowing how to read has on the happiness of individuals. Teaching so many hundreds of thousands of persons how to read and write was not a policy to make the GDP grow, but rather an act to make individuals grow.

Achieving that education be “as natural” as the light of the sun, costs. In the mid.1950s the government’s annual per capita spending on education barely reached 11 pesos, while in the 1980s it was 164 and now it stands at about 700 pesos.

The very revolutionary idea of those times that there not be a single Cuban who did not know how to read or write, so they could be better persons, so that they could feel prosperous and not miserable, was followed by many others that made knowledge an economic resource.

The biggest challenge today, when the access to knowledge is already a right, is, in my opinion, turning the competitive advantage of having a highly educated population into a reality. It lies in turning that knowledge into an effective productive force; in achieving that those who have it, which means all Cubans, can get all the possible advantage from it, first for the common good and then for their own benefit.

Knowledge costs, although we all have access to it in Cuba without directly paying anything (we do, yes, indirectly). And to value knowledge it would also be necessary to focus it on building values according to the reigning idea of prosperity.

It is difficult, because knowledge is a living being that needs “to be fed.” While there is more knowledge, more and better is the food it needs.

In the early 1960s we needed many primary education teachers (formed in the Makarenko schools in a rush). Then we needed many for junior and senior high school, and later many university professors, to the extent that those children got to the universities, multiplied by more than 20 in very few years. The 1990s crisis has hit us hard.

Today the countries with high levels of per capita university graduates and scientists spend a significant amount of their budget in Research and Development. In some cases it represents 2.5 and 3.5% of their budget, while Cuba with a similar education (measured in average years) only invests around 0.5% of its budget.

It took us two decades to go from a schooling of a bit over two grades to another of nine grades, but the effort to grow two more grades of schooling has taken us almost another two decades. That’s how big the effort is.

The fund for knowledge we have today, our so much mentioned competitive advantage, is also one of greatest challenges the Cuban model has, since feeding knowledge costs, and a lot, plus it costs to conserve and reproduce it.

That major goal, perhaps unreachable for some, of teaching hundreds of thousands of Cubans how to read and write in record time, became this other goal, also major, also unreachable for the skeptics, which is to turn that knowledge into a decisive  productive force for our country’s economy.


He was going up the stairs of the hospital where he has always worked. In front of the portrait he saw the child crying because they didn’t let him write his name in the book. He probably was of the same age as his sister’s grandchildren, no more than five. They explained to him once and again that it was for the adults, but the child, who was still very far from understanding the transcendence of the moment, wanted to write his name and demonstrate that he also, like his mother, knew how to read and write.

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