Mission Accomplished: How Bolivia Defeated Illiteracy

The government of Evo Morales has achieved in three years what the regimes of the past two centuries could not: freeing Bolivia from the shame of illiteracy. With this, the second poorest nation in Latin America after Haiti becomes only the third in the continent to achieve full literacy, after Cuba in 1961 and Venezuela in 2005.


A formidable social mobilisation allied to pedagogical and material help from Cuba and Venezuela meant that 819,417 people (99.5% of the illiterate population) became literate through 28,424 centres in the nine provinces of the country and with the help of 130 Cuban advisors and 47 from Venezuela.


Cuba donated 30,000 television sets and the same number of videos, sets of 17 cassettes and manuals for facilitators and 1.2 million primers. Cuba and Venezuela also donated 8,350 solar panels since many of the marginalised people lived in areas lacking electricity.


Bolivians themselves contributed 46,457 facilitators and 4,810 supervisors. They used the Cuban audio-visual ‘Yes, I can’ method. The literacy campaign had a distinctly “woman’s face” as 85% of the illiterate population was female. The programme, carried out by the National Alphabetisation Programme of Bolivia, cost $36.7 million.


Harder to quantify are the hours of arduous work put in by the Bolivian volunteers and that of their Cuban and Venezuelan colleagues who worked for two years away from their countries and families often in remote areas and in a harsh, cold climate to which they were not used. A Cuban volunteer put it as a “difficult but beautiful experience”.


Literacy classes were organised in all sorts of locations. In Quila, in the department of Chuquisaca, where the remains of pre-historic remains have been found, it was the museum set up by the local community. Classes were organised in old-age homes and in one location at least prostitutes were taught in a public plaza. The Opposition-controlled districts were distinctly unhelpful. Even on the day the country celebrated the historic achievement, the Right dismissed it as mere propaganda.


The alphabetisation programme was chalked out in a meeting between President-elect Morales and Fidel Castro on December 29, 2005. Within two months, by the middle of February 2006, the first Cuban advisors had arrived in Bolivia and the programme was flagged off from Camiri in the Santa Cruz department on March 1. By June, the department of Cochabamba had its first student passing out.


The Cuban pedagogical method was tweaked in the Venezuela campaign and in Bolivia it was adapted to meet the local language requirements. In the end, only 24,000 of the about 200,000 Quechua speakers and 30,000 of the about 300,000 of the Aymara speakers chose to learn in their own language, the rest opting for Spanish. Campaigners think this has to do with the shame that was distilled about these languages in the past and it is something they want to deal with in the next phase of the programme.


The post-literacy programme from February 2009 has as its motto, ‘Yes, I can keep going’ and intends to teach primary level Spanish, mathematics, geography, history and science to the newly-literate population. There are more ambitious allied aims of extending learning to school-leaving level and increasing the knowledge and technical skills of the population. The new Bolivian constitution, which is to be put to vote in 2009, will ensure free education for all till the pre-university level.


Nobody was ignorant till they learnt to read and write, Morales told the ceremony to mark this historic day at Cochabamba on December 20, reaffirming that illiteracy had persisted so long because colonialism did not want a literate population, specially the native Indians. The Paraguan President, Fernando Lugo, present at the ceremony and whose country has a large Indian population, many of them illiterate, said it was a matter of pride that the dominant interests in this part of Latin America had been defeated.


The literacy programme is sure to extend to Paraguay and will inspire the indigenous populations of Ecuador and Peru to demand the same. The Cuban pedagogical methods are being used in other countries like Argentina but shamefully the bulk of Latin America’s remaining illiterates, about 20 million of them, are in Brazil, the continent’s economic power house.


More Latin America reports at Meeting Point

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