Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 289 | Agosto 2005



“The Whole Country Was a Huge School”

It’s been 25 years since the National Literacy Crusade earned the Sandinista revolution so much respect, admiration and consensus in Nicaragua and in the rest of the world. Fernando Cardenal recalls that educational adventure he directed.

Fernando Cardenal

For five months, half of Nicaragua’s population lived for the Literacy Crusade. Some 60,000 young people, mostly teenage girls and boys, spread out to the most remote corners of the countryside, and another 40,000 people to the cities, to teach over 400,000 of their compatriots to read and write. The illiteracy rate, which was estimated as at least 51% of the country’s adult population in 1980, was reduced to 12.9%. The Crusade received UNESCO’s Nadeshda Krupskaya prize.

The Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal was 46 years old when he took on the job of the Crusade’s national coordinator. When it was over, he felt that he “could die now,” he was so satisfied. Twenty-five years later, his eyes still become moist when he remembers that historic time. This interview with Cardinal is envío’s way of honoring that stellar event in Nicaraguan history.


envío: Did you expect to be named to direct the Crusade? How did you receive the news?
FC: A few days after the triumph of the revolution, I was driving through Managua when I heard on the radio that I’d been named ambassador to Washington. Without even consulting me. It was one of those crazy things that happened in the revolution. I was stunned. I had to park to take a deep breath. And I said to myself, I’m not going to accept it. When I got home I wrote letters to Sergio Ramírez and Miguel D’Escoto telling them that up to this point I’d been a disciplined party member, but I couldn’t accept this: I asked them to see if they could talk with the National Directorate or whoever, but that this wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to live in the empire, that’s not my nature or vocation, my character and religious vocation weren’t made for it. And while you straighten things out, I added, I’m going back underground and I’m not going to leave my house until this is resolved. Every day I called Miguel to ask what he’d heard. I stayed underground until he told me I could stop worrying; they’d named Payo Solís as ambassador.

Two weeks later, they put me in charge of organizing the literacy campaign. It was another tremendous surprise, but this time a very pleasant one. I didn’t expect it, had never imagined it. As a Jesuit, I had always been involved in education and working with young people and always saw my priesthood as an instrument for educating young people. Education of the young became the goal of my studies and my training as a priest. Before going underground and after I stopped working at the UCA [the Jesuit Central American University], I taught philosophy at the UNAN [the Nicaraguan National Autonomous University]. I went to the UNAN more interested in working with young people than in philosophy. With the task the revolution gave me, I went from talking to young people about Aristotle and Plato to working with those who were teaching illiterate peasants and workers.... It was wonderful. But it was also a great shock: I had never taught anyone to read, didn’t know how to do it....

envío: Didn’t you know people who were illiterate in your childhood?
FC: Of course, lots of them. But I wasn’t aware enough to become interested. My nanny didn’t know how to read, but I never thought to ask her whether she did or not... I didn’t find out until later. Really, this was the first time I became interested in illiteracy in Nicaragua, that I became aware of this problem.


envío: Like other initiatives of the revolution, there was a lot of adventure, of utopia, and also improvisation in this one... How did you begin? What were the first steps?
FC: Since it was all new to me, my first decision was to surround myself with people who knew something about the subject. I didn’t know anything and had to find people who could make up for what I lacked. The first person I talked with was Roberto Sáenz, “Pollo” Sáenz, who was a Jesuit at the time and had done literacy work in El Salvador in one of the communities organized by Father Rutilio Grande in Aguilares, and then again with Pikín Guerrero in Carazo during the fight against Somoza. When I asked him if he wanted to work with me, Roberto was delighted. Right then and there he told me, ‘Look, a friend has just come back from Canada with a degree in education, Katherine Grigsby.’ She joined us. So did Ana Sáenz, Roberto’s sister, as secretary. And this way, one by one, we built the coordination team, until there were seven of us.

At that point, we went to Cuba. I asked the government junta if we could go learn firsthand about Cuba’s literacy campaign, which was the only one we knew about. The first thing we visited in Cuba was the Literacy Museum. When I saw it, I had two very strong first impressions. To start with, I suddenly became aware that we’d have to organize something huge. I became even more stunned, realizing how much organization our Crusade was going to require. The most organizing I’d done up to that point was with the small group of philosophy professors at the UNAN. The other impression was positive: I felt, we felt, the beauty that surrounds the act of literacy. Watching the Cuban film “The Brigadista,” we were moved by those images of young men and women coming back to Havana and the people going out into the streets to welcome their literacy brigade members back with big hugs. We watched it over and over, dreaming that we’d do the same thing in Nicaragua.

I was also very much impressed by the differences. The Cuban revolution had carried out its literacy campaign in a country with a very high educational level, with thousands of trained teachers and a ready infrastructure. And they could do their campaign little by little, in waves. Since, for example, they had a hotel infrastructure in Varadero, they sent the brigade members there in groups to train them, and when one group was trained, it went out to teach and another group followed them... But what did we have? Where in Nicaragua could we find such hotels to train brigade members one group at a time?

We were aware of the Cubans’ full support; it was a very important visit. We came back to Nicaragua highly motivated. I asked the Cuban minister of education if he could lend me two or three of his people, the ones who seemed to me to be the most able, with the greatest commitment, or mystique. A bit later, they also lent us Raúl Ferrer, who directed Cuba’s campaign, so we had the opportunity to have him with us too.


envío: How did Paulo Freire influence our Literacy Crusade? Was he here? Did you already know about Freire and his method?
FC: In my classes at the university, I taught History of Philosophy to freshman students and Philosophy of Education to fourth and fifth year students in the School of Education. I had already used Paulo Freire in my classes as one of the great philosophers of education in Latin America. I had a pretty good knowledge of the philosophy his method is based on and the concept he explains so well: “conscientization,” which is the process of raising people’s awareness to help them progress from “magical consciousness” to “critical consciousness.” What I didn’t know was how to teach someone to read and write, the method for doing this.

In fact, even during the Crusade I didn’t learn how to teach someone to read and write. I still wouldn’t know how to do it. In those months, I didn’t have the time to learn how, nor was that my job. But I made the decision, and this was extremely important, that our Crusade would adopt Paulo Freire’s method. That decision was quite clear from the very start: not only would we teach people letters and what those letters mean, we would also make it possible for peasant farmers and urban workers to learn about their own situation and the economic, social, and political context in which they lived. We were going to teach them to answer questions like, why am I poor? We wanted them to learn to distinguish between a tragedy like a drought or an earthquake and a tragedy like poverty. We wanted them to learn that nature provokes hurricanes while human beings create poverty. Making this distinction is what conscientization is all about.


FC: I had heard that Paulo Freire was going to return to his country once the military regime ended in Brazil. In 1980, he was still in exile, working in Africa with the World Council of Churches. I got in touch with the Council and with Freire through the Jesuit in my community who knew everything, Xabier Gorostiaga. I called Freire and invited him to come through Nicaragua on his way back to Brazil, and he accepted my invitation.

Carlos Tünnerman, Nicaragua’s minister of education, had given us several offices in the ministry’s building for the Crusade. These offices had been used by a Sandinista commando in the fight against the National Guard, and when we first saw them, they were still filled with the paving stones that had served as a barricade and a blind to shoot from. We had no desks, and there were hardly any chairs. It was during those first few weeks that Paulo Freire visited us. I don’t remember the exact date, but I do remember talking with him in that messy office with no furniture. We explained the general outlines of our plan, based on his method. He gave us confidence and a sense of security when he said, “With what you’re doing and this method you’ll teach people to read in five months, you’ll do it.”

When Paulo Freire heard from us about everything the revolution wanted to do, and particularly what we wanted to do with the Crusade, he was excited. I still remember his words: ‘This revolution is a child, pure and beautiful, and we have to support it.’ Right there he picked up the phone. We didn’t even have a stand to set it on. I can still see Paulo Freire kneeling on the floor, calling the World Council of Churches to ask for support for the Crusade. And thanks to the call he made that day, we got the biggest donation we received during the whole Crusade. No government gave us more. I don’t remember exactly how much it was, but it was over $100,000. Paulo Freire returned to Nicaragua several times, but after the Crusade was over. He was very satisfied with what we’d achieved.


envío: To this very day, critics of the Crusade maintain that it was a political indoctrination campaign, because the workbooks used the language of the revolution, because it made propaganda for the Sandinistas, because it taught people to add and subtract with guns and grenades...
FC: We took the general outlines of the methodology we used from Paulo Freire’s method, but based it on the vocabulary and issues relevant to the Nicaraguan situation, particularly to the situation at the time. Freire says that literacy work should be based on “generative words” and that you have to survey the learners to find the words they’re using at that time. We discovered that the key words then were revolution, Sandino, Carlos Fonseca, land reform, FSLN... It was a time of great national politicization. Somoza had been defeated only a few months earlier.

It wasn’t that we imposed these words on the people, but rather that they were the words the people gave us, the ones they brought to us. The words that are most salient at any particular moment change over time. In 1990, after I finished my work in the Ministry of Education, several colleagues and I formed the Nicaraguan Institute for Grassroots Education and Research, INIEP. We carried out an adult literacy campaign and repeated this same process of looking for generative words. The words that came out the most then were health and environment. It would have been absurd in 1980 to do a campaign based on the words health and environment, just as it would have been absurd in 1990 to do a campaign based on Sandino, Carlos Fonseca or land reform.

The only criticism made of the Crusade is that it was “political.” That’s the only one, because who can criticize the mystique, the commitment, the generosity, the heroism, that was so widespread and that was the most marvelous, fundamental part of it? Of course the Crusade was political. Paulo Freire says that all conscientization is political, that all literacy work is eminently political. There never has been nor will there ever be neutral education. Not even in the family. No one has ever been educated in a neutral way.

The most harshly critical people say it was indoctrination, a kind of “brainwashing.” I totally disagree with that. Brainwashing is an inhuman act, a lack of respect. It’s grabbing people by the neck and stuffing an ideology down their throat by force. We never did that. What we did was start from what people wanted to know, without obliging them to accept it. People were curious about the revolution. What we did was satisfy all of that curiosity. We showed people the two options and said: you choose. Do you want this or that?


envío: People have also questioned all the military language used in the Crusade, in the workbooks. Even the name Crusade. It was all very military. Why was this?
FC: It’s true that we used military language in the Crusade. We formed the EPA, the People’s Literacy Army. We organized the kids into squadrons, columns and brigades... and sent them all over the country in fronts, as in a war: the Carlos Fonseca Amador Northern Front, the Benjamín Zeledón Southern Front… And all of the squadrons were named after heroes and martyrs who had fallen during the insurrection against Somoza. The reports we received always used the language of war: “The enemy is retreating...” “We’ve fought triumphant battles...” In this case, the enemy was illiteracy and ignorance. The battles were the classes; the victories were the fact that more and more people were learning to read and write; the “freed territories” were the towns where illiteracy had been eradicated. The Crusade’s anthem, composed by Carlos Mejía Godoy, was a military march: Avancemos brigadistas, guerrilleros de la alfabetización... —“Forward, brigadistas, guerrilla fighters for literacy...”

To understand all of this military language, you have to go back to that time. Just a few months earlier, Nicaragua had overthrown a military dictatorship through a massive military effort, in which everyone participated in one way or another. The younger ones had watched with great admiration how the young people in the guerilla organization, just a few years older than they were, had fought heroically and effectively against the Somoza dictatorship until they succeeded in kicking the dictator and his National Guard out of the country. They had also seen the Guard kill many young people, including their friends.

The mystique of that time was military. The younger ones were too young to have fought Somoza, to have participated in the insurrection, but now they wanted to do something for the country. Suddenly, something came up, a Crusade, that gave them the opportunity to do this. It was no longer a matter of taking up arms like their older brothers or sisters or cousins or parents or aunts or uncles. It was something else, a social task, a contribution to the country’s development, but the language used in this work had to be military and continued to be military because that was the language that had accompanied the whole nation in the period leading up to the Crusade. We can’t look at yesterday’s history through today’s eyes. History is history and this was the mystique of 25 years ago.

envío: Is this mystique enough to explain the massive participation of young people? How did you manage to convince so many young people to take part in this adventure? How did so many of them become so enthusiastic about something that was so new and so risky?
FC: To explain it you have to consider a key factor. The July 19 Sandinista Youth Movement [JS-19] had already been founded and was just taking shape. Carlos Carrión was its general secretary and had been one of its founders. I had already worked with him in the fight against the Somoza dictatorship in the Revolutionary Christian Movement and we were friends. The Crusade gave the JS-19 a fantastic opportunity to grow and put some concrete content into its work. We would prepare the method and logistics for the literacy work, we’d take care of the financing, and the Youth Movement would take care of organizing the young people.

envío: But not all the literacy brigadistas belonged to the Sandinista Youth Movement, they weren’t even all Sandinistas or Sandinista sympathizers...
FC: That’s right. It wasn’t necessary to belong to the Youth Movement or even be a Sandinista. We never made distinctions. But the JS-19 began to attract all of Nicaragua’s youth. Here again we have to take into account the mystique of that time, an unrepeatable mystique, an unrepeatable moment. We have to go back in time to understand the desire among the younger ones to “do something.” Kids as young as 13 or 14 could participate; a lot of them were around that age. There were even some 12-year-olds, though most were 15, 16 or 17—young people from the high schools and universities. That was the generation that joined in the adventure.


FC: We also carried out a huge publicity campaign, directed by a cousin of mine, Carlos Cuadra Cardenal, who ran a publicity agency. He put a lot of heart and a lot of intelligence into it. When I asked him for help he told me, ‘Look, there’s no money here to pay the media for the publicity campaign we need. Besides, publicizing the Crusade to motivate all the young people in the cities to go out and teach is one campaign, while publicizing it to all the peasant farmers who want to learn to read and write is another. And publicizing it outside of Managua so that everyone who knows how to read and write and has a little bit of knowledge will want to teach is yet another. These are three different campaigns. It’s impossible, there’s not enough money for that.’ Given this situation, the solution he proposed was to turn every step we took into news, so journalists would be looking for information about the Crusade. We would generate constant publicity, and the best possible kind.

So that’s what we did; and it worked. Before launching the Crusade, we turned every step we took into news. Journalists came seeking information. And this information became the publicity that motivated young people and their families to participate. We never had to spend any money on the media. There was a time during the Crusade when I gave a daily press conference. Journalists came every day looking for the day’s news. I think that, with this simple idea, Carlos created the biggest publicity campaign around an event in the history of Central America.

envío: Could we say that the whole of Nicaragua was tuned in to this adventure?
FC: You only have to see the newspapers of the time to understand that’s how it was, that the Literacy Crusade was daily news. In his book La revolución perdida (The Lost Revolution), my brother Ernesto describes the Crusade as ‘a national obsession.’


envío: You knew thousands of young people who participated in this adventure... What was it like for them, was it a commitment, a sacrifice? Why did they go teach people to read?
FC: There were all sorts of reasons, and all of them were beautiful. There was a lot of love for Nicaragua. There was a great desire to do something important for the country. There was also, no doubt, the desire for adventure. For many of them, it was the first time they’d been away from home. There was also the challenge, the sense of taking on an enormous challenge. It would take historical, sociological and psychological analyses to explain what motivated our young people. It was all mixed together. There was also a lot of bravery, daring, courage. The fact that those young people went out to teach, despite the threats already being made against them by the first counterrevolutionary groups, which they knew perfectly well, is worth thinking about.

There were already counterrevolutionary groups on the border. They threatened the kids over their radios, saying they’d poke out their eyes with their pencils if they went out to teach. And despite this, they went. They ran that risk. And while they were teaching, the counterrevolutionaries threatened to kill them if they didn’t go home. But they didn’t go back. So the counterrevolutionaries began to carry out their threats, so we’d see that they were serious. In the north of Yalí, in the department of Jinotega, in a town on the border with Honduras, two girls from the Altagracia neighborhood of Managua were walking along a path one day in their literacy brigade uniforms when a group appeared that belonged to a movement calling itself MILPAS, which was already part of the counterrevolution. They yelled at the girls, ‘You don’t understand! So you see that we’re serious, the first one of you dies here! If you don’t go back, we’ll kill you all!’ And they killed one of the two girls, Martha Lorena Vargas. They shot her.


FC: I went straight to the scene of the crime in one of the five helicopters that Mexico’s President José López Portillo had given us for the duration of the Crusade, along with their pilots and fuel. I was filled with sadness, anger and pain—along with the fear that this could be the beginning of a mass desertion.

When I arrived, the 29 girls in that squadron were waiting for me as determined as ever. “They won’t kick us or shoot us out of this Crusade,” was one of their slogans and another was “The country won’t be fully free until it’s fully literate.” Almost all of them stayed to teach in the same place. Only one, who knew that her parents would be very afraid, asked me to transfer her. So we shifted her to Tipitapa, near Managua.

The counterrevolutionaries killed seven brigade members by the end. Martha Lorena’s family didn’t hold anything against me. Nor did the other families. It wasn’t just the kids who stayed in their posts who were heroic, their parents were too. No mothers or fathers went out to find their sons or daughters and bring them home. Not one. The whole way through. In those five months, another 59 brigade members died in various accidents. And no mothers or fathers went to bring their children home for fear that something would happen to them. The commitment was incredible. It was a time of collective heroism. The country became a school. And the parents, along with their kids in the brigades, became national heroes.


envío: What can this story teach young people in Nicaragua today?
FC: Young people face a huge danger today in Nicaragua: they’re likely to grow up thinking that what’s natural among human beings is corruption, a feeling of ‘what have I got to lose,’ selfishness, consumerism... It’s what they see all around them. What we’re hoping to do with the 25th Anniversary Movement, by remembering the Crusade, is show these young people that there’s another way to be human, another way to be Nicaraguan, another way to be young. We’re not giving them the example of a far away country, we’re talking about Nicaragua, about what happened in Nicaragua, led by Nicaraguan youth. We want to infect them with this good example, so they’ll understand that people who are born in this country and eat gallo pinto can be young in a different way.

In celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Crusade, we want people to remember this different way of being young, to remember what motivated young people then. And we want to infect young people with this spirit, so they won’t think that everything is corruption, mediocrity and filth. We’ve already put together an exhibition, and there’ll be a traveling museum that crisscrosses Nicaragua. We’ve also made a CD with the videos, songs, posters and photos of that time. We’re going to encourage people in every village where the literacy work was carried out to organize a party to celebrate and remember what happened. Despite our considerable economic limitations, we’re hoping that, with all of these activities, we’ll be able to infect young people with that spirit.

envío: This year, the 25th anniversary of the Crusade, two literacy initiatives have been launched: one by the Ministry of Education and one in the municipal governments run by the FSLN. What do you think of them?
FC: First, I congratulate all those who want to teach and to put literacy on the national agenda. In this country it’s quite necessary. Having said that, I should also say that I don’t think you can carry out literacy work by decree. After I was quoted in the national news talking about the importance of voluntary participation, several people in the Ministry of Education invited me to give talks to the students who are going to teach to motivate them to do it out of conviction rather than as an obligation. The Ministry has also encouraged the student-teachers to visit the exhibit on the Crusade we opened at the Polytechnical University. I feel that voluntary participation is essential. Paulo Freire said that every educational act is an act of love. And people never love out of obligation. You can’t decree it. In addition, work that isn’t done from the heart can’t be adequately monitored and evaluated.

I haven’t taken part in the initiative launched by the Sandinista municipal governments, nor have they asked for my advice. I don’t know the method or how the students from the state universities have been motivated to participate in it. Although I think they have the necessary capacity, I suspect the task will be very hard because Nicaragua’s university students are currently quite disconnected from any kind of social action. They’re very indifferent. It will take a lot of effort to motivate them to do this kind of social work. And only if they’re motivated will they do it well. I wish both initiatives the best of success. It would seem to me to be a betrayal of my country not to wish them success.


envío: After 25 years, how do you assess that feat, and who do you think gained the most, the teachers or the students?
FC: They each gained different things and we all came out winners. Many of the teachers of that time now have a strong sense of social commitment and a commitment to Nicaragua because of what they experienced in the Crusade. In the 25th Anniversary Movement, we want to revive all of that somehow. We want the former literacy brigadistas to get together again, we want to encourage them to go back sometime this year to the houses where they taught, to return to their host “moms” and “dads” of the Crusade and see what their lives have been like all these years.

I think the big gain for the young people from the cities, for the 60,000 kids who taught in the countryside, was learning about and coming to understand peasant life. It was a very profound conscientization process for them. Much of the larger revolutionary project would have remained up in the air if our young people hadn’t seen with their own eyes why we wanted to change the country. In seeing, in fact living, the peasants’ terrible hardships, they saw the reason for the revolution. This growing awareness infused the revolution with a great deal of energy when it was just starting out.

I remember that a lot of the brigade members’ parents came to my office in the first few weeks to tell me, ‘I got a telegram, a card, my baby, she says she’s only eating bananas and tortillas...’ Very upset. And I’d say to them, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of that, but don’t think that’s just the Crusade food; the peasants have been eating like that for 500 years. Perhaps now you’ll understand why we want to have a revolution in Nicaragua, because what’s hurting you right now is what’s happened for the last 500 years to people in the countryside. It was to change this that we’re carrying out the revolution.’ It was hard for them to accept this, but they thought about it. The degree of awareness that the young people acquired and what this contributed to the nascent revolution was the most profound result of the Crusade.

The literacy students also gained something. They learned to read and write and learned basic math. I think the Crusade also helped them understand what the revolution was trying to do. The revolution sent them a very clear sign, it sent them the best thing it had, its young people. The message was: ‘There they go, that’s the very best we’ve got, this boy, this young woman, they’re going to live in your house, share your food, go through dangers... This is the revolution.’ That was the message.


envío: Looking back over the years, what do you think was the hardest part?
FC: The hardest part was always the deaths, the crimes, but there were also a lot of economic problems. We lived day to day and went through a lot of hard times with debts. Since it was the Year of Literacy, that was the national priority and we had an open account at the Central Bank, but there were a lot of expenses. More than we imagined at the start. The office expenses didn’t amount to much; most of the money went into materials to support the brigades. We were constantly buying things to send out to the countryside: pencils, notebooks, blackboards, boots... Because everything wore out, everything got destroyed.

Medicine was one of the biggest expenses. At the start we designed a model medical kit for each squadron of 30 people, which included the basic drugs that each would need for the five months of the Crusade. But two weeks in, they were already sending in requests for more drugs... What was going on? Well, it was only logical: the brigade members were living in the houses of the peasant farmers, and when a kid got diarrhea they couldn’t say, no, this medicine is ours. So they gave it to the kid, to the dad, to the whole family... So it wasn’t a medical kit for 30 brigade members, but rather for 30 families. We were providing medicine to 60,000 families, not 60,000 brigade members. We were providing medicine to virtually the whole country! The medical expenses were enormous. We also had to send materials to the 40,000 people who were teaching in the cities. It was a continuous, enormous expense.


FC: We didn’t pay for anything immediately because we didn’t always have the money in hand. We borrowed from the account they opened in the Central Bank and paid our debts as best we could. One day Arturo Cruz, who had been a member of the Group of 12 and was president of the Central Bank, called me and said, ‘You can’t take out any more money without funds, even if this is the Year of Literacy. You can’t have any more, you don’t have the funds...’

I was alarmed, since we had a lot of expenses to cover if we were going to continue working over the days to come. The bills were coming in constantly. I came home that day with a tragic look on my face. And once again Xabier Gorostiaga, who was always looking ahead, said, ‘I’ve got the solution. We’re going to wait until day breaks in Geneva and call the World Council of Churches.’ No, I told him, the Council has already given us too much. ‘No, we’re not going to ask them for money. You’ll see.’ When we figured that the workday there had begun, he called one of his friends and said, ‘I’m not calling to ask you for money, but rather to ask you to send a telex to Fernando right now’—there wasn’t email then. And Xabier dictated what the telex was supposed to say: ‘There’s a lot of enthusiasm in Europe and in the European agencies to finance the National Literacy Crusade. We’ll be sending you a large amount of money very soon. Best wishes...’ Followed by the Council’s signature and seal. ‘It’s all set,’ he told me. We went to bed and when I got to my office the next morning, the telex was there. I took it to Arturo Cruz and showed it to him: ‘Ye of little faith,’ I said, ‘why did you doubt me?’ When he saw the telex, he was convinced: ‘All right,’ he said, ‘with this promise of funds I’ve got my back covered.’ And he gave me more money.

After that successful move, Xabier told me, ‘Now you’ve got to go turn this enthusiasm into a reality.’ Xabier had told his friend to announce what was going to happen, but it was up to me to actually make it happen. So, with the money they gave me based on the promise of funds, I sent three colleagues to Europe who “combed” through several countries and collected a lot of money. Fortunately, by the end, we weren’t in debt to anyone. We never went through extreme need. I left the accounts closed. I don’t remember how much the Crusade cost us. And since I’m bad at figures, and I had to sign a lot of checks, I asked the comptroller general, Emilio Baltodano, to lend us two auditors for the whole Crusade, not to do a final audit, but rather to approve any check I had to sign ahead of time. And that’s what we did.

envío: But it was an austere Crusade, no one gained any economic advantage from it?
FC: All the expenditures we made were basically for the brigades. And no one did “business” with the Crusade. Doing “personal business” with state projects is a phenomenon of these current times. During the Crusade, I earned the maximum state salary at that time, 10,000 córdobas, which was US$200-300 at the official exchange rate, and I donated all of it to the Crusade. Other people’s salaries were similar or less.


envío: Personally, was the Crusade the most important thing you’ve experienced?
FC: There’ve been two moments in my life when I felt I could die a happy man. The first was on July 17, when the revolution triumphed. When I heard on the radio that Somoza had left, I was in my safe house in Managua, and since I didn’t have any rockets, I went outside and shot off an M-16 into the air. I was so happy I felt I could die. In all the years I’d been working against the Somocista dictatorship, I never imagined we’d see Somoza leave Nicaragua.

The other moment was August 23, 1980, when the Crusade ended. The Crusade’s closing event was unforgettable. Almost all of the squadrons were there, from all over the country. The huge July 19 Plaza was full of young people. There were thousands and thousands of kids and their families. Unforgettable. The culminating moment was when it came my turn to read the “war report.” I announced to the government, the National Directorate, the people of Nicaragua and the entire world that Nicaragua was a “territory victorious over illiteracy.” Then I raised the Nicaraguan flag and a red and black circle that said we’d won a great war against illiteracy. It was a beautiful event. When it was all over, I stayed on the stage a good long while, watching all the brigade members leave... It was all over. There were so many times I’d thought we weren’t going to be able to do it... and we did it. I was left alone there and felt I could die happily right then.

Fernando Cardenal is currently director of the Catholic educational organization “Fe y Alegría” in Nicaragua.

Literacy 2005: Two Initiatives
Twenty-five years after the National Literacy Crusade, two initiatives have arisen to reduce the illiteracy rate in Nicaragua, which has climbed again. The more conservative estimates set that rate at around 20%, the more pessimistic at over 30% and easily above 40% in rural areas.

In June, the Ministry of Education issued a decree establishing that to obtain their high school degree, all students in the country’s public and private schools must teach at least one person over the age of 15 to read and write: a neighbor, a family member, or an acquaintance. Beginning in 2006, they must teach at least three people. The Ministry estimates that some 95,000 students in their last two years of high school will participate in this effort every year and that, through this and other government programs, illiteracy will be eradicated in the country in four years. Some students have questioned the obligatory nature of the project; some parents, the “dangers” their children may face; and some educators, the improvisational nature of the training provided.

The FSLN has also launched a literacy campaign in the 87 of the country’s 152 municipalities it won in the November 2004 elections. It will be carried out by 80,000 students from the country’s state universities, trained by the FSLN for this task. After implementing a census in each municipality, they will use the Cuban “I can” method, which has been very successful in Haiti, Venezuela, and other countries, and teaches people to read in only 12 weeks using videos as well as workbooks. The aim is to teach some 300,000 people to read in a year’s time. The Ministry of Education questions both the lack of coordination with the government project and the campaign’s partisan bias, since it is being organized by the FSLN rather than the mayors and carried out in the months running up to the elections.

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