Cuba Transcript (020)

Lessons from Cuba with Yanna Cruzata Quintero (4/4/19)

DEREK GALLAGHER: ¡Bienvenidos a Havana! My name’s Derek Gallagher, and I’m here with my friend Peter Horn, and you’re listening to the Point of Learning podcast.

PETER HORN [voiceover]: On today’s show, Cuba!

YANNA CRUZATA QUINTERO: It is a free education and free health care for everyone. It doesn’t matter if they are black or white, it doesn’t matter if they are poor, or they belong to the middle class or—if they’re some people who have a good living. It is for everyone!

[VO]: We’ll also touch on the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961, in which 250,000 volunteers—many of them children—taught basic literacy skills to over 700,000 people in less than one year.

YANNA: They carried out a literacy campaign. They went into the different areas here in Cuba, like to the countryside areas where people didn’t have a school, and the goal was to teach people how to read, how to write as well.

[VO]: On our last night in Havana this past January, Robyn and I were enjoying the view from the Malecón, the beautiful esplanade and seawall that stretches for about 5 miles along the coast. The Malecón is also a roadway, which is important, because about 10 minutes after we sat down to gaze at the water and sip some rum, we heard skidding, a crash. We spun around to see that a car had collided with a turning motorcycle. Crossing the roadway carefully to try to help, we were struck that nearly everyone else did too. The driver of the car that hit the motorcycle stopped, other pedestrians stepped in to help the motorcyclist to his feet slowly, to collect his watch and helmet, to direct traffic, to summon police. Almost immediately another car stopped, offering to bring the injured man to the hospital. He got in with his belongings and the car sped away. Other citizens waited a few minutes for the police to arrive, made sure no one touched the damaged bike, and volunteered their report. If this had happened our first night in Havana, I don’t know that we would have made so much of it, but after almost 10 days in Cuba, Robyn and I thought the strong sense of interconnectedness and shared struggle in these people’s response to the misfortune of a stranger encapsulated so much of what impressed us over and over again during our brief stay in the country.


[VO]: Yes, like U.S. history, the history of Cuba is complicated, and I’m not with this episode attempting to gloss over its harder moments. But I do want to showcase a couple remarkable facets—like the jaw-dropping success of Cuba’s national Literacy Campaign of 1961—that were news to me, especially because we’re at a moment in the U.S. where people are starting to say “socialism” with a straight face. It’s true that not many people in Cuba are very wealthy, which some North Americans find troubling, sure. But I tell you: in our visits to cities and towns in different parts of the island, I counted fewer than 10 homeless people during our entire stay. Here’s how Education Minister José Ramón Fernández explained it to Jonathan Kozol in the 1970s. He said that great emphasis is placed on rural clinics, infant health, and prenatal care. “In Cuba the store windows may not seem to be so full as in Chicago, or Caracas or San Juan, but there are no children hungry, no children sick without physicians present, nor are there schoolchildren without schools” [Kozol, Jonathan. Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in Cuban Schools. 1978. p. 132]. Also, for what it’s worth, when Robyn and I traveled in January 2019, the Government of Cuba was open for business, and its TSA agents were being paid. The U.S. government? Not so much. Cuba is a country I’ve been curious about for a long time. Only 90 miles away from the U.S., but so thoroughly isolated by U.S. foreign policy. As a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I of course grew up during the Cold War. I knew that Cuba was allied with the Soviet Union, that there had been some kind of missile crisis when Kennedy was president, and that Fidel Castro seemed like he would never die, even with all those cigars. It wasn’t so much that I learned a bunch of false information about Cuba in school; it’s just that Cuba didn’t come up all that much. We learned a little about the Spanish-American War, we remembered the Maine, we touched on the Revolution of 1959, but that was about it. It was really only when I got the chance to visit the country that I became totally fascinated. That’s right, you guys, I found myself at the point of learning!


Our tour guide for the show today is Yanna Cruzata Quintero, who was in fact Robyn’s and my tour guide for most of our visit to Cuba. Leading our small but intrepid group of three Australians, two Irish, one Scotsman (that’s Derek, whom you heard at the top of the show) and us two Yankees, Yanna kept us oriented and informed as we explored Havana, Viñales, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad. Yanna has an impressive command of history, and was eager to show us Cuban culture from the inside, setting us up as guests in casas particulares, which would be like a Cuban Airbnb, except that your hosts are also staying on the premises, and they actually cook you breakfast. A product of Cuba’s remarkable and totally free school system, Yanna repaid her country’s investment in her by serving three years as an English instructor for professionals wishing to learn the language later in life. (This kind of schooling is also free for Cubans.) I began by asking Yanna to state the most important things she’d like non-Cubans, especially U.S. citizens, to understand about Cuba.

YANNA: Education and the health system: they were the main priorities when the Revolution triumphed, because before that, people were not allowed to study, or have any access to school, or healthcare. I think it is very important that people know that once the Revolution triumphed in Cuba, people were considered like persons. Before that, poor people, they were considered like nothing. They didn’t have any rights or anything. So I think it is important that people, they know that education and health, they are the main priorities here in Cuba. So everyone will have access to them. It is a free education and free health care for everyone. It doesn’t matter if they are black or white, it doesn’t matter if they are poor or they belong to the middle class or—if they’re some people who have a good living. It is for everyone!

PETER: In some countries there’s free guaranteed education up until the eighth grade, say, eight or nine years of school that it’s free. And you're saying here it’s true through college?

YANNA: Yeah. Here in Cuba, education is free on through university. I mean that is the last point, so we don’t have to pay anything. Not even when we are the university, because the government, they provide everything for you. So, even though you are from the country area, you can go to university that is not so close to the place you are from, and they would provide a place for you to stay. They will provide food for you, and you wouldn’t have to pay anything. And you are paid, as well, just for going to the university. You are paid here in Cuba. It is not a lot of money, but when I was at the university … You know, I am from Baracoa—

PETER: On the east of the island!

YANNA: Almost the end of Cuba! And I went to the university in Santiago de Cuba, which is about 248 kilometers [154 miles] from my place. And so they had a campus there, I had a place where to eat as well, and we were also paid—I mean it was not a lot of money. It was only like two or three CUCs—

PETER: —so like $2 or $3 U.S.—

YANNA: But it was a little bit to eat something when the food was not so good … yeah, but [education] is free. And the payment back, once you’ve graduated, the payment back to the government is to work three years in the place that they need you. And it has to be in the place where you are from. So when I finished university, I went back to Baracoa. I was working as an English teacher at the university there. So there is a small department of the main university that is in Guantánamo province that is the place that Baracoa belongs to. So I was working there for three years.

PETER: You were an English teacher teaching what level?

YANNA: For people who are already professionals.

PETER: Okay.

YANNA: But they want to study another major … this is also one of the opportunities that the government, they give people once they are already professionals. For example, you could be a teacher, or you could be a lawyer, but if you want to study another major, the government as well, they give you this opportunity. They have these universities where people study on Saturdays mainly, because it is a day that people don't have to go to work mainly. I was teaching there people of different ages. I had [students] who were 30 but there were ones that were 40s or 50s. The school is for people that were already professionals and wanted to study something else. They go to the university and yes, that was where I was teaching.

PETER: And they also are not paying for this course?

YANNA: No, you don't have to pay anything for that.

PETER: So that’s the additional training that they’re— Yeah. Wow.

[VO]: As somebody who’s still paying off school loans, I wanted to follow up on a couple things.

PETER: You said you were working while you were in school?

YANNA: No, no, in Cuba that’s not a requirement.

PETER: Okay, so the job comes afterwards. And when you said 2-3 CUCs, which is $2 to $3, that’s a month.

YANNA: That was a month. I mean that was like almost nothing.

PETER: Almost nothing, but of course in the U.S. many students are taking on thousands and thousands of dollars of debt per month. So I would rather—

YANNA: That’s what I mean! Even though we didn’t have to pay anything, we were paid as well.

PETER: Cool.

YANNA: It was almost nothing, but it helped us a lot.

[VO]: SIDEBAR—Haven’t done one of these in a while, but I thought a sidebar might be the best format to gush a minute about the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961, especially the parts that Yanna inspired me to learn after I returned to the U.S. I’m not sure I had even heard about the Cuban Literacy Campaign before traveling to Cuba and reading up a little, and the thing about that is it remains the most successful literacy campaign in the history of, you know, Earth. A little context, so everybody’s on the same page: A decade earlier, Fidel Castro, who was then a lawyer and charismatic speaker in his mid-20s, was slated to be a candidate in the 1952 elections. One small problem: those elections were canceled by Fulgencio Batista, a former army official who believed that he was going to lose in the elections, so he staged a military coup in order to establish himself dictator. Castro and his inner circle soon determined that armed revolution was the only viable route. Clipping many interesting stories because I’m trying to get to the literacy campaign: After several thwarted attempts, the Revolution formally triumphs on January 1st, 1959, when Batista flees with oodles of loot to the Dominican Republic by private jet. Fast forward to September of 1960: Fidel is addressing the United Nations in New York City for the first time—there are great stories about this visit too, but I’m keeping my eye on the prize here—and pledges that Cuba will essentially eradicate illiteracy throughout the population in the coming year. He promises before the world that the roughly 1/4 of the Cuban population—nearly one million people—who could not read and write would be able to by the end of 1961. This would be a bold claim even if careful preparations were already in place with his Education Ministry back home. By all accounts, however, they too were taken by surprise! Fidel understood the link between massive unemployment and rampant illiteracy, which was a prime motivation for change. On a personal level, too, Fidel himself was a voracious reader who spent hours every day with books. (I can’t resist adding that Castro was apparently so talented and focused a reader that none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian Nobel Prize-winning novelist, would, by the end of his career, send each of his manuscripts to his friend Fidel for proofreading and fact-checking.) Big picture, though: Castro believed that a literacy campaign could connect the experience of the more literate city folk and largely illiterate campesinos in the country. That’s what he pledged to do, and many, many Cubans joined in the effort.

YANNA: They carried out a literacy campaign. They went to the different areas here in Cuba, like to the countryside areas where they didn’t have a school. They went to places where there was nothing there. So they used a method to teach people living there the basic stuff. The goal was to teach people how to read, and how to write as well.

[VO]: A broad overview goes like this: In one year, 1961—which also included major interruptions like the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs Invasion in April—250,000 volunteers taught 700,000 people how to read and write. Functional illiteracy dropped from about 24% before the Revolution to about 4% by the end of 1961. Of those 250,000 volunteers, 100,000 were children: about 40,000 between 10 and 14 years old; about 47,000 aged 15 to 17. Like the other volunteers, these kids moved from the city to go and live for a year with rural families, working alongside them in the fields during the daytime and teaching them how to read and write at night and on the weekends. This is amazing to me! First, there’s the practical matter that Fidel had to, of course, promise parents that their children would be safe—which in large measure, they were. Second, Fidel treated these young people—and the farmers they were going to be working with—like full, equal citizens: Speaking to young volunteers about agricultural products, he said: “The nation does not have these goods available because they fell out of the sky. […] They are the product of the labor of the people.” He said, “… [Y]ou are going to work for those who, up to now, have worked for you.” [Kozol, pp. 26-27] He believed the Cuban children could do it, and they did. Today in the U.S. and around the world, about the only positive things that can be said about gun violence and climate change are the ways that young people are stepping up to lead. In the case of Parkland students or students organizing on the South Side of Chicago, or the students around the world who walked out of schools on March 15 to call for action on the climate crisis, these kids are stepping up because we adults are not. In Cuba, on the other hand, the adults in the new government and in the new schools were sending the message that the Revolution needs you. You are part of this. Also, and this fact bears emphasis not just because I’m making this show at the end of Women’s History Month: Over 50% of the volunteers were female. During the Batista regime, the principal occupations available to women had been housewife and prostitute. After the Revolution, women could assume equally important roles: There’s a 2011 documentary by Catherine Murphy called Maestra, which focuses on some of the women who participated in the campaign as 14- and 15-year olds, their struggles to convince their parents, and the growth in their self-esteem in doing something they believed was so important, for example the immense satisfaction of teaching an old farmer for the first time in his life how to make the letters that spelled his name. As one woman, 58 years old when she told her story, put it, “To this day I have experienced no single thing so enormously powerful.” Unlike the U.S., Cuba is a country where equality between men and women is written into law. A volunteer named Maria told Jonathan Kozol in the 1970s: “The literacy struggle was the first time in my life, and I believe the first time in our history as well, that women were given an equal role with men in bringing about a monumental change. Today we speak of the New Woman and New Man. It is a phrase that first came into common use only in recent years, but it began to be a concrete truth in 1961.” [Kozol, p. 38] You doubtless sense that there’s more I want to tell you, but you get the idea. The more I learn about the Literacy Campaign, the more I think there are lessons not just for educators, but for anyone else who takes our future, that is to say young people, seriously. For more on this subject, check out Jonathan Kozol’s fascinating 1978 account based on his own reporting. It’s called Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools. I learned about this book only after returning to the U.S. and beginning to poke around. This is not the first time that I’ve gotten fired up about an idea and found out that Jonathan Kozol was thinking about it 40 years earlier! Aight, back to Yanna for some final thoughts. 

PETER: So part of what I try to do with this podcast is to honor the vocation of teaching. And I wonder if there is a teacher in your life or teacher who made a significant impact on you?

YANNA: Yes, there are a few. But I’m going to talk about one from secondary school. In secondary school I was only like 13 years old, 14, but it was my Spanish teacher.

PETER: Okay.

YANNA: Yeah, I really liked the Spanish language, so we do Spanish at school and this teacher, she was so good at it. The method she used for us to learn was really good so everyone could understand everything real easy. Her name was Maria Eugenia. She was really nice, and that also helped me to try to understand what I wanted to do.

PETER: What was different for you about her class then?

YANNA: She was very approachable. She also was like—because here in Cuba, we have different teachers that teach you mathematics, we have a teacher for history, or Spanish, so it is not the same teacher. It is a different teacher. So she was the main teacher of our group. Every group has a main teacher, so he’s the one that in case you are not doing so well, he’s the one that—or she in that case!—she was the one that was going to go to your house if you weren’t going to school. She was going to go to your house and see what was happening to you. She really cared about us. I remember there was a kid, there was this guy that his family, they were like really, really poor and I remember he was once operated [on]. She was encouraging us to go to his house and take him some stuff. So we went there to visit him, and we took them like some food and some things that maybe he could make because his family, they could not afford to buy anything for him. So she was not only a teacher of that subject, but she was also teaching us to treat people well, to consider people important as well, to care about people as well. So that’s why she was like really—I think everyone in our group, they really remember her. And we stayed in contact with her because she was not only a teacher of Spanish, like the Spanish language, but she was also a teacher for all the things in life, that happen in life.

PETER: A question came up at lunch because so many Cubans, I mean because music is such a big part of the culture. Is music also part of the formal education? Would music be a subject in school for young people, or is it something that if people come to be musicians, is that something they usually get from the family or do on their own?

YANNA: In Cuba we have a subject, but that’s in secondary school, when you are 12 to 15, approximately. So we do have this subject that is called music education, but we don’t really get that much.

PETER: Yeah, it’s similar to the U.S. You might have like an ensemble at school?

YANNA: Yeah. So the [students] in Cuba who want to study, they really like music or they are good at it—in Cuba we have some schools that they are for that as well. So [from the time] you are six years old, you go to that school. So if your parents say that you are good at music or you have the rhythm or your hearing is like really good, they do a test in that school and then you can go to the school that is special for that. You get some other subjects, I mean you get all the other subjects like mathematics, and history and that, but you are specialized in music so you get that. But yes, I think music is in the blood of every Cuban. That’s why it was like you don’t [often formally] study it. It happens the same way with dancing. In Cuba we don’t get any dancing lessons. It is just that you pick it up when to go to school, when they do like parties at the school and you just pick it up, so it is in the Cuban blood!

PETER: That’s it for today’s show. My great thanks to Yanna Cruzata Quintero for taking the time to speak with us. Into other conversations with card-carrying communists? Check out episode 011 and my talk with Oskar Eustis. The Cuban music you heard on this episode comes from two bands Robyn and I saw in Havana, Maguey and Novel Son. Thanks to Shayfer James for intro, outro, and sidebar musics. If you haven’t yet heard Shayfer’s new album Hope and a Hand Grenade, be about that! Details on that and much more at Thanks finally to you for your curiosity, and your support of this show. I appreciate your subscribing, rating, and reviewing, because that really does help other people find us. If you know just one other person who might dig it, please let them know, because it will mean most coming from you. Point of Learning is written, recorded, edited, and mixed by me, and it’s produced in sunny Buffalo, New Yor. Back in a few weeks to unpack white privilege with Dr. Peggy McIntosh!


Peter Horn