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World Association of International Studies

Post What does "Literacy" Mean in Cuba?
Created by John Eipper on 01/07/15 7:21 AM

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What does "Literacy" Mean in Cuba? (Timothy Brown, USA, 01/07/15 7:21 am)

Once, when I was on a US IMF debt renegotiation team in Paris, we were told off the record by the Cuban delegation that their definition of literacy differed from that of the rest of the world.

Cuba defined literacy as the percentage of persons between the ages of 14 and 44 that the State considered capable of learning how to read and write.

When the Mariel refugees arrived in Florida, the US Department of Education tested all the minors for the purpose of placing them correctly in US schools, as I recall, in terms of basic Spanish literacy, they were at a literacy rate similar to those of Colombia and Venezuela but below those of Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile. And, in terms of their math, science and history knowledge, they were between one and two grades below US levels. Their knowledge of history was not a surprise, but their lack of equivalent knowledge of math and science came as a surprise.

Similarly, in the late 1980s Sandinista Nicaragua claimed, and several prominent American Latin Americanists stated in research studies, that they had successfully increased the literacy rate in that country from under 30% to about 90%. When the Nicaraguan Contras and their families were initially tested for literacy by USAID, they were found to be 97% illiterate.

Follow-up studies by the OAS DDR (disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion) program done inside Nicaragua in the regions the Contras came from, the Segovian highlands region where between 47% and 52% of the entire population of Nicaragua lived, they found that the general population of that region was also 97% illiterate. So, then as now, I find the incredibly high literacy claims of either country hard to believe. Although, since the Cubans were deeply involved in the Sandinistas' literacy campaign, that might have been the explanation.

Oh, and for those in WAIS familiar with the criteria for participation in IMF debt renegotiations, for some reason we did not understand Cuba still owed the US money because they had not denounced one USD aid loan, so it was still on the books.

It might be of interest to those dazzled by Cuba's assertion that literacy rates under the Castro regime exceed those of Switzerland and all of Scandinavia to know that prior to the Revolution, Cuba's literacy rate was the highest in Latin America.

JE comments: I've read a number of studies that debunk the notion that Cuba was extremely underdeveloped in 1959--it was among Latin America's leading nations in literacy, households with television, and (my obsession) private vehicle ownership. However, my understanding is that Argentina was the most literate nation in Latin America in 1959-'60. According to this chart (http://www.ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy/ ), Argentina was at 91% in 1960, and Cuba in 1959 was no higher than 76% (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Literacy_Campaign ).

"No hay duda alguna de que Fidel Castro ha hecho una gran labor de alfabetización, pero cuando dice que ya no hay analfabetismo en Cuba necesitamos más precisiones" [There is absolutely no doubt that Fidel Castro has made great strides in literacy, but his claim that there is no more illiteracy in Cuba needs further qualification.]  These words from Ronald Hilton can be read as faint praise or faint damn. (América Latina de ayer y de hoy, 1970, p. 56).

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  • What does "Literacy" Mean in Cuba, Elsewhere in Latin America? (Henry Levin, USA 01/08/15 4:13 AM)
    I have no favorite in the comparison of literacy rates in Latin America. I have lived in Mexico, and my relatives are in Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. Each of these countries is around one standard deviation or more behind Cuba in average language test results (e.g., if Cuba is at the 50th percentile, these and other Latin American countries are at the 17th percentile or lower, to give a rough standard of comparison).

    I would question any international comparison done before the UNESCO study actually tested representative samples of students (and retested in Cuba because of doubts about authenticity of results there). Before the international comparisons of results using representative samples of students (not cherry-picked) and similar testing procedures and tests, literacy rates were reported by national authorities and were measured by witching rods rather than micrometers. More specifically, literacy was rarely defined or measured by testing. Rather, the international measure of literacy was based upon completion of a few years of primary school (usually third grade) as reported by countries. Clearly, that is a joke, even today, in Latin America and Africa. For those who would like to review the issues and the results, see Martin Carnoy's excellent book (many pages of it available free) by going to the following url: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_aRbNwLN-yoC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=martin+carnoy+++cuba&ots=K5WychdkSO&sig=aguEjGuQQZau4TUwKxV_o0ol-V0#v=onepage&q=martin%20carnoy%20%20%20cuba&f=false

    This book is strong on both sources and original research and comparisons of schooling among Cuba, Brazil, and Chile. It is based not only on analysis of test score results, but also a detailed analysis of the educational systems down to video studies of classrooms.

    For a summary of the UNESCO studies and access to the full reports in Spanish and English: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/santiago/education/education-assessment-llece/second-regional-comparative-and-explanatory-study-serce/

    JE comments:  When I visited Havana in 1998, ordinary Cubans struck me as highly literate--and you meet a lot of "ordinary" folks just walking around as a tourist.  Admittedly, this is nothing more than anecdotal.  Going back to Tim Brown's point (7 January) on the low literacy of the Marielito exiles, I wonder if this had to do with the high incident of "undesirables" that Castro put on the boats.  Out of curiosity, I wonder what the illiteracy rate is among the prison population of the US.  I found a bar graph that puts it at just under 20%:


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