Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 149 | Diciembre 1993



Is It Time for Another Literacy Crusade?

Envío team

Thirteen years have passed since the National Literacy Crusade, one of the revolution's most beautiful undertakings. Today, illiteracy levels have again shot up and we are now in almost the same situation that we were on the eve of the Crusade. First the war, then the Chamorro government's neglect, are responsible for this catastrophe. Carlos Tunnerman Bernheim, education minister during the Crusade, recounts some of the lesser known aspects of that great epic and lays out the need for a new Crusade adjusted to the country's current situation.

The Mystique of the 1980s

CTB: The National Literacy Crusade was not the first attempt to teach the Nicaraguan people to read and write. I remember that, in 1952 or 1953, while I was a law student in León, Somoza García, desirous of incorporating new faces in his Cabinet, brought Andrés García from Mexico to be his new education minister. García was familiar with Mexico's literacy experience during the first years of the Mexican revolution. Inspired by those ideas, he tried to develop a literacy campaign in the context of a dictatorship that had no interest in literacy. Its own permanence in power depended on the people's ignorance.

Somoza allowed García his enthusiasm at first, and some local literacy commissions were even formed. When García came to León, he organized, as he had in other areas, a parade of students and professors. I saw it go by with García at its head and thought, "It would be wonderful if a literacy campaign could really be carried out." This desire stayed with me. Somoza sent García back to Mexico some months later without having let him do anything. First, because it was not in Somoza's interest to let the people study, and second, because García's parades were gaining notoriety and Somoza got jealous. It all ended there.

envío: And the Crusade, when was it first proposed?
CTB: In San José, Costa Rica, before July 19. The "Group of 12" had met with the FSLN National Directorate and we each had assigned tasks. I raised the possibility of a literacy campaign, and they requested that I develop a plan. The first plan was presented in early July, and was later put in practice with few modifications. At that time there was already a Cabinet and I had been named education minister. Two or three months after the triumph, when the ministry was a bit more organized, I began to insist that it was necessary to begin the Crusade.

envío: Do you think it was premature to carry it out only eight months after the triumph?
CTB: It was necessary to take advantage of the national consensus at that moment, the mystique. It would have been very difficult to regain it later. That's why I requested of the Government Junta in October or November that 1980 be named "Year of Literacy." In 1980 Nicaraguan society was still united and this was a project that no one could refuse. We saw later that all sectors of Nicaraguan society participated.

Support from Everywhere

envío: No one doubted the appropriateness of the Crusade?
CTB: There were many doubts, above all because of prudence. According to rough estimates, the Crusade would cost $10?20 million. The state treasury was empty. I was convinced we would never have the resources for this undertaking, and that it would be easier to get both national and international support at that moment than at any other. And that's what happened. We took a risk, because if we began and couldn't finish, we wouldn't have a second chance.

envío: How did you cross the abyss between the lack of resources and the immensity of the project?
CTB: With international support. Paolo Freire came to Nicaragua because the literacy material was inspired by the psycho?social method he developed in Brazil. We gave him the different materials we had developed so he could study them. After analyzing them he said, "It's not my method, but a happy adaptation of it to different circumstances. You are living a revolution and you have figured out how to fit the Crusade within that process. I think these are good materials that follow a legitimate methodological system."

We responded, "We appreciate your opinion, but we have a small problem: we have no money. We need one million dollars to print a million primers." Freire called the World Council of Churches in Geneva and laid out the problem. And the million dollars arrived. The rest came later.
Everyone got involved and everyone supported us. All countries, important or not, offered something. Even the African countries, despite their difficult economic situation. The Queen of England sent an airplane with hundreds of first aid kits that were distributed to the most isolated zones. The letter that accompanied the donation said that it was made by Her Majesty.

envío: How do you account for the massive international support?
CTB: There are two reasons. First, no one can oppose a project like this one. All countries, their peoples and governments, wanted to participate. Second, the United States was challenged in the sense that, if Cuban teachers came and socialist countries sent support, the "democratic" countries couldn't be left behind.

envío: Did the United States offer support?
CTB: The US people supported us in many ways, but it took a while for the government to collaborate. One day, when the Crusade was about to begin, I ran into Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo and told him, "Ambassador, it will look bad if everyone participates in an effort as good as this one except the US government. Your absence will be noted." The mistrust had already begun, but even so he responded, "How can we help?" "Look," I said, "there is one area where we still need help, in transport. We need 40 jeeps, but we need them...yesterday." He answered, "But if we send you what you're asking for, it would be through one of our international cooperation agencies with the emblem painted on the door. And the `muchachos' will paint it over with the Sandinista flag." I gave him guarantees that if we were given the vehicles we would respect the emblem. So 40 jeeps arrived from Panama, each one with its emblem.

They were a great support in the isolated areas. And they traveled all over, with the emblem, with no problems. Until they faded away, because they were used long after the Crusade.

envío: Does anything remain of the Crusade's achievements?
CTB: Of those who learned to read during the Crusade, about 10% finished primary school, which guarantees that they will not return to illiteracy through lack of practice. Some of them have even gotten university degrees. That was not a big group, but a very important one.
The current government considers that literacy should be directed only to primary school children. If adults didn't learn to read, they can go to primary school at night if they want. But special programs, dedicated to adults who did not have opportunities, do not exist. Literacy is neither a priority nor an interest.

So when there is a government that again takes interest in this issue, it will have to carry out another massive literacy campaign, taking into account the positive and negative experiences of the first one. There will have to be a new Crusade to reduce illiteracy to 10?12% as we did in 1980.

envío: Has nothing been salvaged then?
CTB: There were many great experiences. For example, the Crusade helped us understand the total lack of health care the peasants suffered. An example is Caño Negro, a small community in the north where one of my children worked with the Literacy Crusade.

The work could not begin there immediately because time had to be spent burying children who were dying of measles. The children were malnourished and there was no medicine. The literacy workers told us that the peasants didn't want them to go back unless they could bring a medical brigade. When they returned with doctors days later, we found hundreds of peasants waiting for medical care.

Many came not for a medical appointment, but just to see the doctor. They had never seen one in their life and wanted to see what one looked like. Later, using the same scheme as the Crusade, the revolution organized Popular Health Brigades. Thousands of latrines were also built during the Crusade and peasants were shown how to chlorinate the water. Another great achievement of the Crusade was doing it in Nicaragua's indigenous languages. This was developed on the Atlantic Coast and had unexpected consequences.

A collaborator from Belize came who, in addition to speaking English, spoke Garífuna. He's the one who realized that Garífuna communities exist in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is now included as one of the countries where Garífuna is spoken, even though it is a small group and the language has undergone changes. We didn't know about them before the Crusade. This is a permanent achievement of the Crusade.

It Would Be Harder Today

envío: If there was a chance to carry out another Crusade, what would be repeated from the first Crusade and what would not?
CTB: In general, almost everything could be repeated, but adapted to the country's new situation. Many of the mistakes we made were not mistakes at the time of the Crusade. For example, we would reduce party references. When the Crusade was being promoted, FSLN and revolution were the same thing. To a certain degree, we can't judge a campaign thirteen years ago with today's criteria. At that time everyone accepted the FSLN and felt proud to support it and be part of it. That's not the case today. If we promoted a new Crusade today, I don't know if we could get the same consensus as before, but we would have to rebuild it.

envío: Could there be discrepancies about doing a literacy campaign?
CTB: There shouldn't be, but experience shows that it's very hard in countries where there's no revolutionary process to create the mystique and popular mobilization that took place here or in Cuba. Other countries tried campaigns similar to ours and didn't have the same success. If it were repeated here, it couldn't be exactly the same, because the context has changed. We'd have to involve students, but with a different formula. Maybe by establishing that no one can get a high school diploma without teaching a certain number of people to read.

This wouldn't have the enthusiasm and mystique of 1980, but students would participate because youth are dedicated. Naturally, the conditions would have to be created; we'd have to look for other methods, other kinds of organization. We would have to look for the formula with a large dosis of imagination.

envío: Were there organizational mistakes in 1980?
CTB: If I had to organize a similar undertaking, I'd put more time into training the literacy workers. They weren't always sufficiently trained. We counted on pedagogical reinforcement from the teachers, because every brigade always had a pedagogical consultant who was a teacher, generally from the same school. But these teachers, who knew how to teach youth, weren't familiar with adult education, which demands a different pedagogy. The teachers should be well?prepared. I'd also try to have a broader preparation, and I'd have the Crusade last at least six months.

A serious mistake was to not have foreseen the impact of visual defects on literacy. We only discovered this once we were on the ground. A new Crusade would have to first offer eye exams to people interested in learning to read, then give them glasses and enough time to get used to them before beginning the Crusade.

A Human Right

envío: What happened to all the materials gathered during the Crusade?
Nota:Inicio | Contactenos | Archivo | Suscripciones CTB: There were lots of materials but we didn't have the capacity to process them. The students did what we asked them to do: they taped testimonies and experiences, gathered marvelous information, but most of it was never used. Carlos Alemán Ocampo did publish selections from literacy workers' diaries in the Editorial Nueva Nicaragua some years later with the title Converting Darkness into Light. We also asked them to identify and report any archeological remains, indigenous cemeteries and pre?Hispanic objects in order to develop a map. The maps were made, but I think that in most cases no explorations took place.

The literacy workers were also committed to gathering stories, legends, advice, fables, and popular tales. Many of them did this. They asked the peasants to tell a story or legend and they taped it. I listened to many very interesting tapes. Some of the stories were already familiar, but there were also new ones. The truth is that all these materials were not used effectively. If another Crusade is organized this would have to be reviewed and a plan made for how to deal with these materials.

envío: Why is the Crusade so important to you personally?
CTB: Because it's a human right. When people are not given the opportunity to read and write, they are deprived of one of the most important and fundamental human rights, because they are condemned to being second class citizens, citizens without access to letters, without access to the codes of contemporary society. They are in another world.

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