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SOUTH AMERICA
Cuba exports literacy program
Alejo Álvez
9/7/2006
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Audio visual education program adopted throughout the region.

Uruguay has an illiteracy rate of just 2.3 percent; the lowest in South America, but authorities say that nearly 20 percent of the 230,000 recipients of a government plan to address the urgent needs of those living in extreme poverty, are illiterate or did not finish primary school.

"Our education standards are good, but recent governments destroyed the night school system for adults — only 22 of the 120 (schools) that we had in 1985 are still open — so we have to import the ‘Yo Sí Puedo’ plan," said Bertha Sanseverino, the coordinator of the National Social Emergency Plan.

She was referring to a sweeping Cuban literacy program that has been implemented in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

The program’s pillars include literacy without exclusion, no political use of the program, and that eradication of illiteracy, not a reduction, is the goal.

The Yo Sí Puedo, or "Yes I Can" program, which received the 2005 King Sejong Literacy Prize, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), was developed by the Latin American and Caribbean Pedagogical Institute of Cuba. The program consists of 65 30-minute audiovisual lessons.

UNESCO called the teaching method "innovative, flexible, capable of adapting to a variety of geographical, cultural and ethical situations, and proven its efficiency in the most diverse social, rural and urban contexts and in sectors with special needs."

Participants are given a seven-page booklet, and are guided by a facilitator, who is not necessarily a teacher, who coordinates each group’s exercises. The program says it can teach students to read, write and combine words and express ideas within seven weeks.

Venezuela was the first South American country to adopt the program in 2003, which premiered in the poor Caracas neighborhood 23 de Enero. The program was later made available throughout the country, and in October 2005, UNESCO certified Venezuela an illiteracy-free country.

In the 28 months since the program premiered, 1.5 million Venezuelans were taught to read and write and the country’s illiteracy rate dropped to just over 0.5 percent. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), in 2002, 6.8 percent of Venezuelans were illiterate.

"Having worked many years in literacy and education of youths and adults, and having known many literacy programs in various parts of the world, gives my admiration for the effectiveness of ‘Yo Sí Puedo’ credibility," said María Luisa Jáuregui of UNESCO to the Venezuelan Congress in October 2005.

Sanserevino says that in the program’s nascent stages, Cuba would send facilitators, but this has proved unnecessary in the South American countries where the program has been used. Cuba sends only a few professors to aid the local literacy instructors "with an excellent result," she said.

In Argentina, where 2.7 percent of the population is illiterate, the plan has been used in 240 towns in 15 of the country’s 23 provinces, but agreements were signed between local governments, not the state, and Cuba, and above all, social organizations gathered in the umbrella group A Better World Is Possible, to which Cuba donated the teaching materials.

The idea to adopt the new literacy plan hatched in 2004 in the heart of Barrios de Pie, an unemployed workers organization that noted that 31 percent of its members were illiterate. Some 1,500 members have since learned to read and write, as have thousands of impoverished Argentines in the province of Santa Fe. Sixty percent of the populatation of the town of Tilcara in northern province of Jujuy that was illiterate, and all were taught to read and write.

"Our experience has been enriching," said Laura Velasco, education coordinator for Barrios de Pie. "It wasn’t necessary for any Cuban facilitator to come, and as a teacher is not necessary, the tasks are being led by the first literate members."

"This is beautiful, I always was told that reading and writing allows one to get by, and that’s great, but no one can imagine the feeling I have when I read the letters my granddaughter writes me from the city," says Milagros Durandal, a 70-year-old campesina who learned to read and write in Tilcara.

In Ecuador, where ECLAC declared the illiteracy rate between 8 and 11 percent, the country’s Congress signed April 2005 an accord with Cuba to implement the program throughout Ecuador. The northern 37,000-person town Cotacachi, which had a 22.3 percent illiteracy rate, has been declared 100 percent literate in March 2006.

But the biggest challenge for the Cuban program is Bolivia, where 13.3 percent of the population is illiterate, the highest rate in South America, equal to 1.2 million of the 9 million Bolivians. The program began there on March 20 in all nine departments in the country. Twenty-six Cuban facilitators trained Bolivian instructors, and authorities estimate that by late July, some 280,000 Bolivians have been taught to read and write.


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