MANAGUA – More than two decades after launching their lauded revolutionary literacy campaign into the war-stricken countryside, the Sandinista government is again reaching out to Nicaragua’s uneducated masses with the ambitious goal of eradicating illiteracy by this time next year.
The Sandinista literacy program contemplates Nicaragua’s forgotten minority groups; not only are classes being taught in Spanish, but also in English and the indigenous languages of Mayagna and Miskito, as well as in Braille for the visually impaired.
Indigenous lawmaker Brooklyn Rivera, a political ally of the Sandinista Front, told The Nica Times in an e-mail this week that the indigenous Miskito population on the Caribbean coast is now better organized than it was in the 1980s, and better positioned to help run the literacy programs in accordance with “our own values and interests.”
The literacy campaign will even include a push into neighboring Costa Rica, where churches will be turned into classrooms for Nicaraguan immigrants.
Following Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s widely challenged claim that his government eliminated illiteracy in that country in 2005, the Ortega government’s goal is to declare Nicaragua illiteracy-free on July 19, 2009 – to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution.
“Illiteracy in this country has severely and criminally impeded the youth and put our future at risk,” said Mario Rivera, the campaign’s coordinator. Rivera said 170,000 Nicaraguans have already been taught to read and write since the campaign began last August.
In implementing the Cuban-inspired reading program, which is recognized by the United Nations and the same model that Chávez uses in Venezuela, Nicaragua is deploying legions of teenagers as tutors, similar to the national literacy crusade launched here in the 1980s.
Since the Sandinistas reduced illiteracy rates nearly to single digits during their first government, 28 years of war, poverty and a lack of investment in public education has since eroded what was one of the revolution’s most renowned and celebrated achievements.
The 1980s literacy crusade dropped illiteracy rates from 60 percent to 13 percent, according to the Education Ministry. But those statistics are contested.
Liberal legislator Rodolfo Alfaro, a member of the National Assembly’s Commission on Education, Culture, Sports and Recreation, questions the Sandinistas’ claims from the past and says their current goals are equally ambitious. Alfaro says he expects the Sandinista government to report the same “exaggerated results” as in the 1980s.
“There’s been a lot of propaganda,” he said. “It’s just like the campaign in the ’80s, which was false and more about political actions than real actions related to education.”
He said the commission will revise a Sandinista-led census that’s being conducted to determine the country’s actual literacy rate, as well as audit the final results that are reported by the literacy campaign. He added that the political opposition “won’t allow” the Sandinistas to try to indoctrinate students with Marxist ideology behind the guise of a literacy campaign, as he said was the case in the 1980s.
Rivera, however, said the indigenous communities are better organized and involved in local government now, which will safeguard them from any ideological agenda.
“If in the ’80s the program pushed a strong ideological and party bias, I believe the indigenous population now has a more direct and participative role in governance of our communities,” said Rivera, leader of the YATAMA indigenous party.
The biggest challenge to the literacy campaign, he said, will be “the lack of resources available throughout the country,” particularly in indigenous communities.
Head Count Headache
The numbers are fuzzy when it comes to how many Nicaraguans can’t read or write, but one thing is clear: It’s a massive portion of the population.
Education Ministry aid Luis Amaya said as much as one-third of the population is illiterate, while Alfaro estimated it’s more like one-fifth. Rivera, however, announced the current Sandinista plan would only educate one-tenth of the population.
Amaya said the Education Ministry is conducting an informal survey to determine just how many people are illiterate.
Each municipal council – groups made up mostly of teachers who are coordinating the literacy campaigns locally – will use its own methodology for the survey, according to Jairo Pinedas, municipal council coordinator in Granada.
Teachers in Granada, for example, will train students to collect information for the survey, according to Pinedas.
On a recent morning, Pinedas met with a classroom full of teachers at the Education Ministry in Granada to explain how the survey will be conducted with few resources and virtually no budget. Some teachers complained that surveying residents will mean waiting until they get home from work late at night.
“It’s not an easy task, but we can do it,” Pinedas assured.
The survey is just the beginning of the Sandinista literacy campaign.
Amaya said another phase of the campaign is to construct the schools and classrooms to house literacy centers.
Though the government’s school construction efforts have recently been marred by a corruption scandal involving the head of the state-run oil company PETRONIC, the program continues to move forward on a grassroots level in some communities.
Sandinista youth groups were in Masaya this week rebuilding schools as part of a massive effort to employ young Nicaraguans to help refurbish the schools.
Foreign aid for school con struction also continues to flow in, much of which is going through non-governmental channels.
Martí to Fidel
The Cuban-inspired “Yo, Sí Puedo,” is an 8-12 week course in which school teachers supervise teams of youth volunteers to use audio-visual guides to instruct classes of up to 20 students. Recognized by UNESCO, the program, which facilitates learning by associating vowels with numbers, has been used in Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala.
Rivera said more than 21,000 volunteers – most of them women – have signed on as tutors since the campaign began last August.
Teachers charged with training those volunteers will coordinate the program in municipal councils.
Amaya, who headed the literacy campaign in the 1980s, said Nicaragua has been using the Cuban method since 2005, and that the program was already used to declare Managua “illiteracy free” last year.
The popular learning method involves lessons in Cuban history, with programs such as “From Martí to Fidel,” referring to Cuban writer and national hero José Martí and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Outside of his Education Ministry office, Martí and Castro peer down at Amaya from a giant mural on the side of a ministry building that was painted earlier this year to announce the campaign. On a recent afternoon, he stood outside of his office contemplating the mural, which also celebrates the 1980s literacy campaign.
“We want to guarantee that there’s not one illiterate Nicaraguan,” he said.