What good is literacy if your reading is censored?
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in the 2–29–20 edition of The Telegraph of Alton, IL).
“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told Anderson Cooper during a Feb. 23 interview. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”
We can safely assume that Sanders’ meant these questions to be rhetorical. Condemning or even criticizing a literacy campaign seems to make no sense, even when such a campaign was initiated by a communist dictator such as Fidel Castro.
Sanders’ assertion that Castro launched a literacy program is indeed true. Appearing before the United Nations in September of 1960, Castro said, “Our people plan to wage a great battle against illiteracy with the ambitious goal of teaching every last illiterate person to read and write.” According to Ruth A. Supko in her paper “Perspectives on the Cuban National Literacy Campaign,” the campaign’s success rate speaks for itself.
While literacy was high among urban Cubans, 42 percent of rural Cubans couldn’t read. Castro’s year-long literacy campaign changed that. According to Supko, “707,212 people became literate, or achieved a level of reading and writing equivalent to that of a first-grader.” Cuba’s illiteracy rate dropped “from over 20 percent, according to the last census taken before the Revolution, to 3.9 percent,” a figure much lower than that of any other Latin American nation of that era.
While Bernie stated that he was opposed to the “authoritarian nature” of Cuba’s communist government, he stopped short of noting how this dictatorship made a cruel mockery of its celebrated literacy campaign. What good is the ability to read in a nation where freedom of the press doesn’t exist?
Issue 42 of Cuba Facts, which is published by the Cuba Transition Project of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, states that Cubans can’t “Read books, magazines or newspapers, unless approved/published by the government.” Coincidentally, in Cuba “all books, magazines and newspapers are published by the government.” Cubans are also forbidden to “Receive publications from abroad or from visitors.” Those Cubans who violate this mandate are “punishable by jail terms under Law 88.”
The German Nazis destroyed books — and so do the Cuban communists. The Friends of Cuban Libraries reported on December 10, 1999 that hundreds of books that had been donated to Cuba by the government of Spain were destroyed. “City workers carried out orders to burn some of the library books, while others were buried under the agency’s parking lot with the aid of a bulldozer.” Other books “were loaded on trucks and hauled away to trash dumps on the outskirts of Havana.” The destroyed books included “even those on seemingly non-controversial topics such as children’s literature and medical textbooks.”
Why this destruction of books? “During the inspection of the incoming books at the Havana docks, the State Security police were alarmed to discover 8,000 pamphlets containing the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” This declaration, passed by the United Nations in 1948, declares in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any means regardless of frontiers.”
No dictatorship — communist, fascist or theocratic — tolerates the bold intellectual freedom advocated in Article 19. Rather than painstakingly browse through each book to see whether it contained this pamphlet, the Cuban communists decided to save time by destroying all the books.
Cuba abolished illiteracy for one reason only: to ensure all its inhabitants could be manipulated and controlled by government-produced reading material. Bernie either forgot to mention that, or such a grim fact simply got by him.
John J. Dunphy is the author of Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials: The Investigative Work of the U.S. Army 7708 War Crimes Group, 1945–1947 and Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois.