The event included a showing of the documentary “Maestra” (teacher) by Catherine Murphy, which describes how a quarter of a million volunteers worked with more than 700,000 fellow Cubans, wiping out illiteracy in one year. Some 100,000 of these volunteers were under the age 18, the majority female. The film interviews several women who participated in this historic effort, including Aguilera, who at age 7 was the youngest volunteer.
In January 1959 the workers and peasants of Cuba, led by the July 26 Movement headed by Fidel Castro, overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and began to reorganize society based on the needs of the toiling majority — opening the road to the first socialist revolution in the Americas. The literacy campaign was one of the major steps in the transformation of Cuban working people, which enabled them to run their own country.
“It was a very intense year, with the whole population involved in one way or another,” Aguilera said. Many of the young literacy teachers went to the countryside, living and working with peasant families and teaching classes at night. Many rural workers lived in huts with dirt floors and no electricity or running water, she said, a new experience for youth from the urban areas.
“In the cities, classes were organized in existing schools, workplaces and union halls,” Aguilera said. “My student was a street cleaner, 58 years old and completely illiterate. The themes of the lessons were about the world, about the right to health care and to land. At the same time students were learning to read, we were gaining consciousness about our country and about the world.”
This accomplishment “required both action by the government and a desire of the people to do it,” Aguilera said. “No one got a vacation that year, but no one complained.
“We caught up our courses the next year,” she said.
In response to a question, she described how the Cuban government has taken the initiative since 2001 to help expand literacy in other countries, particularly in Latin America. “More than 10 million people have learned to read with this program,” with the help of Cuban volunteers in some 30 countries, Aguilera said. Washington “accuses Cuba of trying to interfere in other countries,” she added, “but our only goal is to allow people to help in the development of their own countries.”
The meeting included brief presentations on conditions facing working people in Puerto Rico today. Miguel Alvelo Rivera of Chicago Boricua Resistance described how the “Junta” — the fiscal control board imposed by Washington on the island’s colonial government — is forcing the closure of 184 schools in rural areas.
José López, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, talked about fundraising efforts to help people recover from Hurricane Maria that devastated Puerto Rico in September. The social catastrophe in the wake of that storm “brought to light the unnatural problem of Puerto Rico” caused by U.S. colonial rule, López said.
What happened in Puerto Rico showed the “lack of preparation of people to confront a natural phenomena,” Aguilera said. She described how the government in Cuba leads in “creating the conditions and educating the people” to face the inevitable hurricanes that hit the islands in the Caribbean. “In every school students learn the plan, and in the workplaces.”
The way the Cuban Revolution mobilizes working people to prepare for, meet and rebuild after hurricanes like Maria and Irma and the literacy campaign Aguilera described vividly in her talk are striking examples of what difference a socialist revolution — the working class in power — can make.
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