In capitalist media and academia, there are concerted efforts to demean the manifold achievements of the Cuban revolution and misrepresent its humanistic development model as cruel, dictatorial, and anachronistic – a Cold War relic that has managed to survive only by the state’s iron grip on the people. This is propaganda, peddled by the US government and its allies, which aims to neutralize the threat posed by Cuba’s alternative model of independent socialist development. When misleading images and analyses of Cuba predominate in the media landscape, its model can suddenly seem less appealing to citizens in the US and throughout the world.
As CIA agent turned critic Philip Agee explains, US thinking on Latin America follows the “rotten apple theory”: “if you get one rotten apple in the barrel [i.e. one independent socialist government undermining US hegemony] it’s gonna spread to all the others.”1“The Company and the Country: A Conversation with Phil Agee,” Alternative Views, 1995, https://archive.org/details/AV_540_541-THE_COMPANY_AND_THE_COUNTRY-_A_CONVERSATION_WITH_PHIL_AGEE/AV-540.mpeg. Demonizing the Cuban model is thus imperative to US policy. However, the reality, as I and many others have personally witnessed, is that Cuba’s achievements are admirable and inspiring – in the arts, in agroecology, in international solidarity, and in the creation of universal, de-commodified health and education systems.
In particular, Cuba’s post-revolutionary educational system aimed to reverse centuries of economic and social underdevelopment as well as racial and gender inequality. Put succinctly, mass education was the means by which the revolutionary government aimed to challenge US imperialism, gain national sovereignty, and present a model of development for other Global South nations struggling under similar circumstances – a model not only for universal non-commodified education, but also for socialist development.
As Theodore MacDonald’s Making a New People: Education in Revolutionary Cuba argues, Cuba’s huge successes in terms of literacy, universalizing education for people of all races and genders, indigenizing technical education to meet production needs, and raising the self-esteem of the population could only have occurred within the context of a total social revolution.
Who is Theodore MacDonald?
Making a New People was published in 1985 by the Vancouver-based New Star Books. In an act of solidarity, its author Theodore MacDonald donated the royalties from the book to the Cuban Ministry of Education (he never accepted the royalties from any of his 40 books, instead donating all earnings to internationalist projects). MacDonald led a storied life, full of incredible events, which in some cases have not been confirmed. He was born in Montreal, Quebec, to Elizabeth Roberts MacDonald, a writer and suffragette leader, and Cuthbert Goodridge MacDonald, editor of the Montreal Herald. One obituary alleges that his father led a fascist movement, which drove MacDonald to run away from home and study under Jesuits.2As alleged in the following obituary: “In Memoriam Theodore MacDonald 1933-2011,” Revolutionary Communist Group, April 12, 2011, https://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/britain/2154-in-memoriam-theodore-macdonald-1933-2011–frfi-220-aprilmay-2011. Another account claims that his mother left the family when he was ten, and that the young MacDonald’s beautiful singing voice led him to be taken in by the Catholic Church and later the Jesuits, who educated him.3Roger Fletcher, Morning Star, March 24, 2011, https://grahamstevenson.me.uk/2011/10/09/macdonald-theodore/. Regardless of the specifics of his early life, MacDonald’s polymathic character soon revealed itself: all obituaries report that he earned a Licentiate in Music at age twelve, and some that he acquired a degree in math and epidemiology at seventeen.4See the Morning Star and Revolutionary Communist Group obituaries, as well as the following obituary from Sussex Press: “Tribute to Littlehampton professor Theodore MacDonald,” Sussex World, April 5, 2011, https://www.sussexexpress.co.uk/news/obituaries/tribute-to-littlehampton-professor-theodore-macdonald-2802926.
The Revolutionary Communist Group’s obituary claims that as a young man, MacDonald served in the Canadian military during the Korean War, and while fighting on the peninsula, he was taken captive by the forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). According to the obituary, he was “impressed by the anti-imperialist ideology of his captors” and “defected to North Korea at the end of the war.” Later he supposedly “hitched a ride on an East German ship and completed his medical training in East Germany, then part of the Soviet bloc.”5Details about MacDonald’s alleged internment in the DPRK, and his education in East Germany, are scant. Other than the Revolutionary Communist Group obituary, I have been unable to find information on his imprisonment in the DPRK. However, the Sussex Press obituary also claims MacDonald was educated in East Germany. MacDonald subsequently worked with civil rights groups in the 1960s US, travelled to many countries including Korea, Vietnam, Jamaica, Fiji, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Cuba, and held university chairs in education, mathematics, and medicine. He was also a health consultant for international organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
A committed socialist, MacDonald wrote several books on Cuba during his lifetime, including Hippocrates in Havana: An Analytical and Expository Account of the Development of the Cuban System of Healthcare from the Revolution to the Present Day (1995), Schooling the Revolution: An Analysis of Development in Cuban Education Since 1959 (1996), and The Education Revolution: Cuba’s Alternative to Neoliberalism (2009). However, 1985’s Making a New People was his first book on the social and economic gains of the revolution. The book uses historical research, political analysis, and interviews with people directly impacted by certain policies to craft a detailed and compelling portrait of Cuban schooling before and during the revolution. It explicates the many ways in which education was and remains the engine of the revolution, a tool for individual “disalienation” and national development, for the dignity of students and the country as a whole.
MacDonald understood that capitalism is not the solution to inequality – rather, it perpetuates inequalities in living conditions, health, education, and more. The Revolutionary Communist Group obituary states: “Theo was clear that it is the dictates of capitalism that require two thirds of the world’s population to remain poor and underdeveloped in order to maintain the super-abundance of a privileged minority [and he] always used Cuba as an example of what is possible in a society governed by human need, rather than the drive for profits.”6“In Memoriam Theodore MacDonald,” Revolutionary Communist Group. As he asserts in Making a New People, Cuba “represents the needs and aspiration of two thirds of the world’s people [whose] deprivation is necessary to maintain the superabundancy that we enjoy. If they should adopt the ‘Cuban solution’ or anything like it, our very way of life is threatened. No wonder Cuba is important.”7MacDonald, Making a New People, 15.
Despite being a prolific researcher, author, and activist, MacDonald’s work has received next to no attention in his home country of Canada. This is likely due to the fact that his political views and criticism of Western countries’ role (Canada included) in impoverishing the Global South – such as 2005’s Third World Health: Hostage to First World Wealth – directly undermine the myth of Canada’s international generosity, which still dominates in the public sphere.
Education in Pre-Revolutionary Cuba
MacDonald’s research shows that before the revolution, education in Cuba was overwhelmingly urban. There were some private schools in the countryside, mainly run by the Catholic Church, but they were limited to the children of middle and upper-class families. The rural poor had next to nothing, and university education was disconnected from their plight. For example, graduates from the University of Havana’s Faculty of Medicine “tended to specialize in fields of medicine of value only to the wealthier elements of Cuban society, and to live in the large urban areas of Havana or Santiago.” MacDonald explains further: “The medical school graduate tended to have come from a wealthy background and was socially comfortable only in that context. He would therefore be unlikely to feel any commitment to rural medicine or to work among the urban poor.”8MacDonald, Making a New People, 41.
Specialities like parasitology and tropical hygiene were taught in medical school, but they were unpopular and considered irrelevant to the needs of the urban elite, as “only the poor and wretched lived in conditions rendering dengue fever, malaria, tuberculosis, etc., likely.” Instead, doctors in pre-revolutionary Cuba tended to learn the specialties that attracted wealthy US clientele, such as cosmetic surgery and weight reduction techniques. This “commercial distortion” of medical education, writes MacDonald, meant that “Havana was well supplied with expensive specialists, while hardly any doctors at all were found in the countryside.”
In the late 1950s, the pre-revolutionary government took some steps toward expanding access to education, such as making secondary education free and increasing the number of secondary schools. However, corruption was rampant, and a huge amount of school funds were siphoned off by their administrations. Subject matter also remained irrelevant to Cuba’s national development needs; in secondary schools, curriculums were “highly specialized and uncompromisingly pedantic, aimed exclusively at preparing students for university entrance even though over 90% of those entering secondary school did not go to university.”
The revolution’s policies could not have been more different. In MacDonald’s words:
From the outset, schooling issues played a dominant role in the policy formulation and tactics of the Castro administration – much more of a role, and with much more prominence, than had been the case in any previous revolution… Since that time, schooling – while not losing its position of dominance – has shifted from being a product of the revolution to being the same revolution’s main driving force and its raison d’être.9MacDonald, Making a New People, 27.
In addition to improving access to education through measures like the Literacy Campaign, the seguimiento, Worker-Farmer Education, and expanded teacher training, the education policies of the revolution aimed to repair the class and geographic disconnect that characterized pre-1959 schooling and encourage attitudes of social responsibility and solidarity.10The seguimiento was the government’s follow-up to the literacy campaign. It aimed to bring a sixth-grade education to all newly literate Cubans. Taught by travelling teachers in remote areas of Cuba, it involved mathematics, reading and writing, natural history, social studies, and hygiene.
The Importance of Education in the Cuban Revolution
Prior to the revolution, Cuba’s illiteracy rate was 25 percent, but the divide between rural and urban illiteracy was massive. In cities, only around 11 percent of people were illiterate, while in the countryside – the revolution’s main base of support – the number was 41.7 percent.11Jaime Canfux and John A. Mateja, “A Brief Description of the ‘Battle for the Sixth Grade,’” Journal of Reading, vol. 25, no. 3, Education in Cuba: 1961-1981, A Special Issue Commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign, 226.
Even when the revolution was still a guerrilla struggle, MacDonald outlines, literacy remained a central pillar of the 26th of July Movement’s political agenda. The movement established schools in remote forests where no educational institutions had existed before, teaching farmers to read and write. “In all the major revolutions since that in France in 1779,” writes MacDonald, “popular access to education has been one of the many promises held out to the people for a better future. It is fair to say, though, that the Cuban revolution was the first to proclaim universal access to literacy and to education as one of its primary aims from the initial clandestine stages.”12MacDonald, Making a New People, 17.
A few years after the triumph of the revolution, the government’s policies bore fruit. New primary and secondary schools were built at a breakneck speed – in addition to classes, they provided pupils with study supplies and free meals. MacDonald writes: “[I]n the first two years of the revolution… school capacity increased 25% and the number of teachers by 30%… in the first year of the revolution, 37 new schools were built. At the opening of school in September 1959, there were 18,000 classrooms in operation; a year later there were 28,000.”13MacDonald, Making a New People, 43.
Before 1959, there were three universities in Cuba, with the University of Havana comprising 80 percent of all enrolled students. By 1962, the number of students in university increased fivefold.14MacDonald, Making a New People, 167-8. This was due to the construction of new universities distributed more evenly throughout the country, the government’s new focus on science and technology, and the success of the literacy campaign of 1961.
The Literacy Campaign
Over the course of the book, MacDonald presents an enlightening analysis of the 1961 literacy campaign, using personal observations, statements from Cuban leadership, and extensive research. Broader social analysis is always followed by a human-interest component that includes interviews with those directly impacted by the policies in question – people who were poor before the revolution, people who were rich, those who volunteered as teachers and those who learned to read during the campaign.
Those from the upper classes could be resentful of the revolution’s education system and condescending toward the country’s new teachers. One interviewee, Isabella Gonzalez, was the daughter of a wealthy Havana lawyer. She acknowledges that education before the revolution was far worse, but criticizes post-1959 teachers because, in her words, “Some of the teachers… are so badly spoken and have hardly read a thing.”15MacDonald, Making a New People, 35. Gonzalez’s recollections are paired with those of Angel Soccoro, a worker in charge of maintenance at a Havana baseball stadium. “The school was a joke,” he says of his pre-revolution education. “If you couldn’t pay, it was useless – you had no books and the teacher didn’t bother with you… Without [Fidel], Cuba would still have pigsties for schools.”16MacDonald, Making a New People, 36. Another interviewee, Mercedes Benitez Cabrera, volunteered to teach during the campaign. She proclaimed: “The literacy campaign was a marvelous thing. That Fidel has brains up there! It really did more than teach people to read and write. It taught them to be tolerant of one another. It united the country.”17MacDonald, Making a New People, 53.
MacDonald’s analysis shows that the literacy campaign was designed not only as a way to train new workers and aid development – it also built national unity by sending urban teachers into the countryside to live with agricultural workers, thereby popping the urban bubble and bridging the rural-urban divide. Regular schoolwork was paused. Homes, factories, government offices, and casinos were converted into makeshift schools. Literate people (many of whom had no prior teaching experience) volunteered to go into the countryside and educate their fellow Cubans. The government also provided eyeglasses to 177,000 students with poor vision, free of charge.18MacDonald, Making a New People, 70.
“The genius of the Cuban campaign was that they made it make a difference,” MacDonald told The Independent in 2010. “It wasn’t just about peasants becoming literate; it was about learning to read so they could join in politically and socially: there was a point to it.”19Quoted in Nina Lakhani, “Latin lessons: What can we learn from the world’s most ambitious literacy campaign?”, The Independent, November 7, 2010, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/latin-lessons-what-can-we-learn-from-the-world-rsquo-s-most-ambitious-literacy-campaign-2124433.html.
The campaign was conceived as a dialectical process of learning and teaching by which traditional boundaries such as student-teacher, urban-rural, and upper-low class were eroded to create a new national consciousness. From the beginning, teachers were instructed that they were to learn from their students as well. In this way, the Cuban campaign broke with accepted international literacy models. At the time, MacDonald explains, UNESCO was promoting “functional literacy,” which analyzed literacy not as a human right but based on its perceived economic utility. As a result, functional literacy campaigns involved “doing a survey of the society to ascertain which people need to be literate to enhance their economic role in that society.”20MacDonald, Making a New People, 18. Literacy was not treated as a basic human right.
The Cuban approach was entirely different and, even with fewer resources and personnel than UNESCO, far more successful. “When one compares the materials used in that Cuban campaign with the well-produced and attractive little booklets produced by UNESCO for literacy campaigns,” writes MacDonald, “the contrast is almost laughable. Yet the Cuban campaign succeeded to a degree that no other campaign has.”21MacDonald, Making a New People, 55. By its conclusion, almost 100 percent of Cubans were able to read.
Counterrevolution and Follow-up Campaigns
Of course, counterrevolutionary forces understood the power of literacy and tried to halt the campaign through terrorism. Funded by the CIA, these groups murdered a number of volunteer teachers including Conrado Benitez, who at the time of his death was drawing up a list of peasants in rural Oriente province who wanted to learn to read.22MacDonald, Making a New People, 67. The counterrevolutionaries tortured Benitez before his death in an attempt to intimidate Cuba’s illiterate into remaining socially underdeveloped, but the government refused to bow, instead adopting Benitez as a symbol of the nation’s need to resist counterrevolutionary terrorism and educate themselves.
Following the success of the literacy campaign, Cuba’s leadership did not rest on its laurels. As MacDonald outlines, the government implemented a variety of follow-up programs, including the seguimiento and Worker-Farmer Education, to ensure that citizens were able to put their skills to good use. Through such programs, newly literate Cubans received education in many topics, including technology, agricultural science, and economics, and were able to enter university or vocational training. These workers were able to contribute to national development rather than simply generating profits for rural landlords and US-based companies as they had before.
In short, MacDonald shows how the literacy campaign was the embodiment of Cuba’s new approach to education, which in its willingness to break with the prescribed “functional literacy” model went far beyond reading and writing to encourage dignity, self-worth, solidarity, and national development. As a result, it was adopted as a model in several countries in the region, including Nicaragua and Grenada, during their own literacy campaigns.23MacDonald, Making a New People, 56. As MacDonald explains, the illiteracy rate in Nicaragua fell from 70 percent to under 10 percent in one year due to the government’s adoption of the Cuban model. In Grenada, illiteracy fell from 70 percent to 20 percent in eighteen months.
Politics, Education, and Resistance
MacDonald analyzes many other areas of Cuban education, including the perfeccionamiento of the late 1970s, the Pioneer organization, the adverse impacts of the US blockade, and the role of organizations like the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) in creating new forms of childcare such as the circulos infantiles (pre-school facilities built in every new housing development and staffed by FMC members).24The perfeccionamiento was a six-year period (1973 to 1979) in which the Cuban government scrutinized and sought to improve the education system. In addition to producing new curricula, syllabi, and textbooks, the perfeccionamiento aimed to streamline the education system by creating a more unified administrative apparatus that could respond to local needs while eliminating regional discrepancies in access to education. Each of these sections is not only instructive, but also inspirational, as he provides Cubans themselves, including children, with the opportunity to voice their thoughts on the positives of each development and potential areas of improvement.
While the book itself is not the most topical examination of the education system (MacDonald himself would publish updated analyses), it remains important for its exploration of the revolution’s early policies and its comparison of Cuba’s educational model with those of capitalist countries. In the US, Canada, and other capitalist societies where income determines education, the kinds of policies MacDonald describes would seem unthinkable. It is important to be remind oneself that they can and do exist. The fact that many in capitalist countries disparage Cuban education as “political” shows not only their lack of curiosity, but also their blindness to the way that the politics of their own education systems obfuscate the reality that the Cuban model is the most practical, effective, common-sense solution to illiteracy and unequal access to schooling.
Addressing criticisms that the Cuban education system is overly politicized, MacDonald observes that some education experts “would hold against the Cuban idea of schooling its preoccupation with what we call politics.” However, he states, “What such detractors do not appreciate is that the same phenomenon holds true in their own systems. The differences are two: with us it is not acknowledged, and most people (teachers among them) are convinced that political ‘neutrality’ is possible in a state schooling system.”25MacDonald, Making a New People, 27. The difference is not that Western schooling systems are apolitical – it is that they are willfully blind to the politics embedded in them. As MacDonald writes, “No nation or state, whatever its political orientation, will put the bulk of its citizenry through a system which does not legitimate its own social and political ethics, and hence its very survival…The school system is a symptom of the society within which it operates.”26MacDonald, Making a New People, 28.
In capitalist societies, schooling is thus transactional, individualist, and willfully blind to alternatives. As MacDonald’s book shows, the Cuban model is not so complacent. It is mature enough to recognize that politics and schooling are inseparable, and to build from that awareness a schooling system that reinforces the values of solidarity and collectivism over individualism and competition. By reading Making a New People, anyone interested in educational alternatives can gain a deeper understanding of how it was possible for the Cuban model to emerge, why it was popular, and why it remains so to this day.
Toward the end of his life, MacDonald was skeptical that Cuban education could maintain its enormous gains in a world in which so many communist allies have collapsed and the US blockade remains. “The Cuban model is at the vanguard of education, and health, but its future in a neo-liberal [market-driven] world is grim,” he told The Independent. “There is an increasing shift towards appreciating and copying the Cuban system in Latin America and many other countries such as Malawi and Pakistan, but it is unlikely that [the original] will survive to see these changes.”27Quoted in Lakhani, “Latin lessons,” The Independent.
I visited Cuba in 2021 and spoke with students at the University of Las Villas (“Marta Abreu”) in Santa Clara. The students commended the fact that their education, housing, and study supplies were free, but added that the US blockade negatively impacted every aspect of their education and limited research in a number of important areas including technological research and food sovereignty. Like MacDonald, I received a glimpse into the tremendous achievements and many challenges facing Cuban education, but I left confident in the capacity of Cuba’s population to resist US aggression and continue building upon the foundation of revolutionary education that he describes so remarkably in Making a New People.
Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be published by Lorimer Books in September. You can preorder it here. He previously reviewed Howard Adams’ Prison of Grass for Liberated Texts.