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"Nicaraguan Literacy Campaign: Its Democratic Essence"
By Russell Kleinbach

Monthly Review,  July-August 1985, pp. 75-84 

Russell Kleinbach visited Nicaragua in December 1984. 

"Literacy is an apprenticeship in life because in the process people learn their intrinsic value as human beings, as makers of history, as actors of important social roles, as individuals with rights to demand and duties to fulfill."  Frente Sandinista, November 1979 1 

The 1980 literacy crusade in Nicaragua, continuing now as the adult education program, is a political program with an educational format and educational outcomes. The goal of this campaign and other mass organizational activities is to secure the revolutionary process and develop the Nicaraguan people and society through democratic participation.

Descriptions of the planning, organization, and statistical results of the crusade are available from a number of sources. The task of this paper is to look at the methods and content of the campaign to show that one of its central characteristics is participatory democracy. The campaign is the process of learning words such as revolution, freedom, production, and health in a way that enables people to transform society collectively in order to reflect and materialize the words.

The impetus for the paper comes from an interview with Ernesto Vallecillo Gutierrez, vice-minister of adult education, in Managua in December 1984 and the acquisition of copies of the textbooks used in the literacy campaign.

This, of course, is not to suggest that there have not been abuses, corruption, and exaggerations in the Nicaraguan pro- grams and policies. But I argue that the democratic character of the literacy program, which is a building block of the whole Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) program, gives convincing evidence in favor of the short- and long-range democratic character of the Nicaraguan revolutionary process and is evidence disproving Reagan administration and conservative Nicaraguan claims that the policies and institutions of the new Nicaragua are totalitarian and/or Marxist-Leninist.

The points to be made are that (1) the literacy programs are political activities in support of development and participatory democracy; (2) the methods of teaching and the wide- spread popular involvement make the process intensely democratic; and (3) the concepts and values used in the texts pro- mote equality, democracy, and freedom. All of these points are indications of the democratic nontotalitarian character of the revolutionary process. This is especially true when comparisons are made with the Somoza years in Nicaragua or with educational systems in the rest of Central America.

The political nature and philosophy of the literacy program has its theoretical foundation in the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and its practical forerunners in the literacy campaigns of Cuba, Peru, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome', and others. The Nicaraguan campaign, however, has its own unique characteristics.

Roberto Saenz, one of the crusade's planners and subsequently vice-minister of adult education, with four years of experience teaching literacy (semi-clandestinely prior to 1979), said of the campaign: 

"It is a political project with pedagogical implications ... not a pedagogical project with political implications. There are no neutral projects, not in Nicaragua, not in the United States, not anywhere. Every social project carries with it an ideology-in order to maintain a system, to reproduce a system, or to sustain a process of profound change." 2

As Robert F. Arnove points out, the current government in Managua "posits that, under the successive regimes of the Somoza dynasty (1937-1979), education worked to legitimize an inequitable social order that prepared elite groups for leadership, while denying fundamental knowledge and skills to the vast majority. Passivity and fatalism were fostered in the masses by the previous regimes."3 The new Sandinista-led government, understanding the political-ideological character of education, has changed the values, ideology, and educational process itself to make education more egalitarian, universal, and democratic. According to Father Fernando Cardenal, national coordinator of the crusade, "Any education that merits the name must prepare people for freedom-to have opinions, to be critical, to transform their world." 4

Ernesto Vallecillo Gutierrez, current vice-minister of adult education, put it this way:

The literacy campaign was a political act precisely because it gave the people the instrument (denied them for centuries) to know themselves, their history, and the nature of their society. In no part of the world is there neutral education: here it is not neutral, but in the interest of working class ... so that children and adults will want this revolution and will work for this revolution.5

Prior to the 1979 Sandinista revolution, there was almost no education in the rural areas (75-90 percent illiteracy); some children received schooling through the early primary grades but nothing more. Fifty percent of the population was functionally illiterate. In the cities there were private schools for the wealthy and a few  public schools. Many of the educational materials came from outside the country and presented a false history and reality which had little to do with Nicaragua. Nicaraguan culture, poetry, and literature were taught in a mangled form. For example, Sandino was presented as a bandit, and students learned that all progress and technology would have to come from outside of Nicaragua. Materialist, as opposed to humanist, values were stressed so that, for in- stance, students learned that doctors studied and practiced not to save people but to make money.

Why was there so much illiteracy and why was the history and culture presented in this form? Simply because the economic and political models demanded it. The economy was based on agro-export, principally coffee, bananas, sugar, and wood; and the government was a totalitarian dictatorship. The economic and political elite wanted/needed an obedient uneducated working mass of people who could not read or write and were thus less likely to organize and protest, and those who did receive education should not learn the words independence, self-reliance, or democracy.

The new government in Nicaragua believes that the sys- tem under Somoza was unjust. The Nicaraguans, according to the vice-minister, no longer want to be simply raw material producers; they want their resources to serve the local people: "We want our sweat to go into schools, houses, and homes for the elderly. We want a completely new society, not constructed by a few but by everyone. We want it to be the people of Nicaragua!" And for that purpose they need to "awaken the intelligence of people and give them instruments for construction, i.e., culture and knowledge." This sense of the importance (of popular participation in the reconstruction of the new society is why, four months after the triumph of the revolution, the literacy campaign was planned, even though Somoza had nearly emptied the treasury on his way out of the country. This is why even though the country is still poor and now at war, they are still building schools and trying to distribute books.

The Sandinista hope and assumption is that the ability to read and write and understand Nicaraguan society will cause the mass of the population to fight the contras, volunteer to pick coffee, teach others, and work in many other ways for the "revolutionary process because of their convictions and be- cause they feel it in their hearts and not because they are forced. "The new education is designed to be "reality-based, critical, consciousness-raising, active, personalized, creative, transforming, participatory, and integrating theory and practice through work." 6

Neither the goals of the new education nor the content is politically neutral. The aim is not only to throw off the chains of ignorance, but also the shackles of the old words and ways of acting. Before, they were taught to say mama and papa, but now they learn to say agrarian reform. The content and language of the campaign's workbooks introduced the people to the development program of revolutionary Nicaragua. The people learned to read and write the vocabulary they were hearing and using everyday in the new society. Thus the content was political, but not in the sense of reflecting the philosophy of one particular political party. It was, and is, political in the more general sense. In its content and method it promotes the ideas and practices of (1) political and economic democracy through mass participation; (2) rights of human development; (3) collective responsibility for defense, education, health care, and other services; (4) sexual and racial equality; (5) religious freedom; (6) economic planning and national self-reliance; and (7) international nonalignment.

Sheryl Hirshon, a North American educator, participated as a group leader of the crusade in the rural areas. In her book And Also Teach Them to Read, she provides excellent insights into the teaching method. According to the crusade orientation material: "The literacy process is an act of creation in which people offer each other their thoughts, words, and deeds. It is cultural action of transformation and growth."7 In Nicaragua the teachers were not educators formally schooled in the Freire method or in political philosophy, but were 60,000 youths and 30,000 adults of varying backgrounds trained in two weeks for a five-month campaign. Working within these limitations, the campaign planners developed a ten-step teaching method:

(1) The presentation of an evocative photo from the primer to stimulate dialogue within the class, leading to the conclusion expressed by the short sentence that followed. 
(2) Focus on the key word called from this opening phrase. 
(3) The separation of this word into syllables, and the selection of one specific syllable as the lesson's objective. 
(4) The presentation of the consonant sound of this syllable together with the five possible vowel combinations, for example, la le lo lu. 
(5) The copying and letter writing of these syllables, with small and capital letters. 
(6) The formation of new words by combining the new syllables with others learned in previous lessons. 
(7) The presentation of all possible variations of these syllables-for example, inverted (al el il ol ul) or with an ending consonant sound (las les lis los lus). 
(8) The reading of words and sentences that contain the known syllables. 
(9) The dictation to test the student's mastery. 
(10) The muestra, or demonstration-a phrase or motto to be copied in the student's best handwriting. 

Because Spanish is such a highly regular language phonetically-one letter, one sound-a method based on syllable recognition will eventually permit the student to read virtually any word in the language. Thus it was hoped that this simple formula, combined with an open dialogue, would both create competent readers and open some of the doors to inner transformation.

There are 23 lessons in the first literacy primer, and they all follow the above format. Listed here are the opening phrases of the lessons with the key words underlined, so the reader can see the focus of the discussions: 

(1) Sandino, guide of the Revolution. 
(2) Carlos Fonseca said, "Sandino is alive." 
(3) The FSLN led the people to Freedom. 
(4) The Sandinista fighters beat Somoza's army. 
(5) The popular masses made the insurrection. 
(6) The mass organizations promote production and defend the revolution. 
(7) By spending less, saving resources, and increasing production, we consolidate the revolution. 
(8) The FSLN promotes cultural survival. 
(9) People, army, unity: a guarantee of victory. 
(10) The Agrarian reform retrieves the land for the benefit of the people. 
(11) We will rebuild our country with organization, work, and  discipline. 
(12) 1980, year of the literacy crusade. 
(13) An imperialist defeat: yankee domination is over. Nicaragua's natural resources are now ours. 
(14) The nationalization of Somoza's enterprises protects our resources and strengthens our economy. 
(15) Work is a right and duty. By work, we will rebuild our country. 
(16) The revolutionary government builds new health centers for the people. 
(17) With everyone's help, we will build playgrounds for our children. 
(18) Let's join together to build good roads and improve housing in our communities. 
(19) Nicaraguan women have traditionally been exploited. The revolution now makes their liberation possible. 
(20) The revolution opens new roads for the total integration of the Atlantic Coast. (21) A real democracy is the expression of the power of the organized masses. 
(22) There is freedom of worship for all churches that de- fend the interests of the people. 
(23) A main goal in the Sandinista revolution is to encourage friendly relations with all the nations of the world.

The content of the lessons was carefully chosen to cover the historic context of the revolution and the broad range of social, political, and economic issues to be confronted by the revolutionary development process. The textbooks do not mention-let alone promote or criticize-capitalism, private property, socialism, or communism. Remember, of the approximately 90,000 crusade instructors, 60,000 were high school and college age and the rest were predominantly factory and other urban workers. They were not ideologues for any party. They represented many political persuasions, and with the personal support from many organizations such as women's groups and unions, a quarter of the population was immersed in the in- tense learning experience. The method and the content of the campaign should have been acceptable to a range of political perspectives, from liberal capitalist, to democratic communist, to any perspective supportive of participatory democracy and human development. The national coordinator of the cam- paign was a Catholic priest (Fernando Cardenal, S.J.) who surrounded himself with educational advisors from many other countries. The ruling political alliance at the time included the five "democratic, leftist, and progressive" parties, not including the right and extreme left. The campaign won the prestigious UNESCO Literacy Award. These points are worth making because of the accusations by some religious leaders who initially supported the literacy campaign but later claimed it was "Sandinista indoctrination." As Francisco Lecaya, then vice-minister of adult education, told a colleague of mine in January 1981, "They trained 60,000 young people in one week to spend five months with the campesinos. If there was any brainwashing, it was done by the campesinos to the brigadistas."

Thus the literacy crusade was "political" because of its goals, its teaching method and content, and also because it sent 60,000 young people to teach in the rural areas where they would share the work during the day, teach in the evenings, and live with local families. In the urban centers the volunteers were "housewives, factory workers, government employees, professionals, and working students. They taught in homes, churches, factories, and offices; even a national brewery and-the onion stall in the-'Managua market became thriving centers of study."10  The organizational support for the campaign came from citizen groups, workers' associations, youth organizations, and public institutions. They canvassed half the population to see who was illiterate, did fund raising, arranged for accommodations, food distribution, transportation, and sup- plies. This was a national project so that "some 400,000 Nicaraguans mastered elementary reading and writing skills, studying their history and revolution in the process."11  And in a country of less than 3 million "directly or indirectly through family and friends, the campaign touched almost the entire nation."12  There was mass participation by individuals and popular democratic organizations. This was not indoctrination, but the liberation of people through knowledge and understanding which prepared them to have opinions, to be critical, and to transform their world. The aim was to go beyond literacy, to bring about change in the attitudes of the literates and the illiterates and to change the relations between the various social strata in the country.

Many of the young people were transformed. Their experience destroyed for them the popular notions that misery and poverty are "picturesque." They unlearned the "happy slave" theory of history, and when these youths returned to their homes they educated their families. Two quotations serve to underscore this point. The first is the statement by a peasant farm worker to the mother of his literacy teacher in July 1980: "Do you know I'm not ignorant anymore? I know how to read now. Not perfectly, you understand, but I know how. And do you know, your son isn't ignorant any more either. Now he knows how we live, what we eat, how we work. And he knows the life of the mountains. Your son, ma'am, has learned to read from our book."13  The second quotation is from a middle-class mother of three literacy teachers (August 1980): "The literacy crusade taught us two things. One, what our own children are capable of doing and of becoming. Two, what our country is like and how gentle and how poor our people are in the countryside."14 The peasants already knew that poverty is not picturesque, but they did not know how to write the words education, health care, unions, house, clothes, movies, democracy, or revolution. In the past they were not even allowed to speak many of these words in public; now they were learning to speak and write them, and beyond that they were learning to translate them into material fact. They were experiencing the revolutionary transformation of becoming creators of their own society. This was intellectually, religiously, economically, and politically liberating and empowering. It was and remains profoundly democratic in both content and method.

And it is the necessary prerequisite to meaningful democratic national elections. The democratic essence of the literacy campaign, however, is not that it was necessary for meaningful participation in national elections. Rather, the democratic essence that the people (el pueblo, the masses) taught themselves, and the words and skills they taught themselves say that the people are Nicaragua. The words say that the people in the cities and on the farms can all think, criticize, and participate in the economic and political decisions of their daily lives, as well as voice opinions on national policy and choose national leaders.

Three years after the 1980 campaign, Sheryl Hirshon, who still teaches in Nicaragua, wrote:

"The days of silent, humble peasants are passing fast, as are those of the isolated shack full of fear and misery, and the pot- bellied children who run and hide at the sight of a stranger. Cultural patterns cannot be eliminated in three years, and severe economic limitations still exist. However, one can pass through any part of the remote countryside and find the seeds of change- campesinos open, alert, curious, eager to talk, and to read what- ever printed material the visitor may have brought. The most involved among them has increasingly formed part of the education, health, and union structures, as well as the peoples' militia. They are determined that  'no force either ideological or armed- will take from them what they've won in these three years." 15

With the literacy campaign and the continuing education programs, el pueblo, the people of Nicaragua, are becoming educated; they are democratically creating a new, freer, and healthier society. There are, however, those who are using ideological and armed force to try to stop the literacy work and other programs, such as agrarian reform. Since early 1980 more than 4,000 teachers, health-care workers, coffee-pickers, soldiers, and others have been killed, while thousands more have been wounded, raped, or tortured by counter-revolutionary forces, financed and equipped by the U.S. government and anti-democratic forces in Nicaragua. The people can probably control the anti-democratic forces of the right and the left within their own country if there is no direct U.S. invasion. However, as long as the U.S. government continues its economic aggression and, directly or indirectly, through El Salvador or Honduras, continues to fund the contras, lives and energy and resources which could further the democratic development of Nicaragua will instead be directed to the war effort. The greater the economic and military aggression by the United States, the more the young democratic revolutionary government will be forced to centralize decision-making onto -a wartime footing and the longer it will be before the people of Nicaragua will be a mature political and economic democracy.  


1  Cited in Valerie Miller, "Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade: Education for Transformation," Ph.D. dissertation., University of Massachusetts, 1983, p. 58.
Sheryl Hirshon with Judy Butler, And. Also Teach Them to Read (Westport, CT: 1983), p. 7.
Robert F. Arnove, "The Nicaraguan National Literacy Crusade of 1980, Phi Delta Kappa (June 1981): 205.
Hirshon, And Also Teach Them to Read, p. 83
Interview with Ernesto Vallecillo Gutierrez., vice-minister of adult education, in Managua, December 1984. Much of the information in the following paragraphs also comes from this interview.
Miller, "Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade," p. 59; see also pp. 63 and 64.
Hirshon, And Also Teach Them to Read, p. 49.
The Sunrise of the People: A Sandinista Education Workbook for Reading and Writing, Ministry of Education, Republic of Nicaragua, 1980.
0 Valerie Miller, "Nicaraguan Literacy Crusade," in Nicaragua in Revolution, ed. Thomas W. Walker (New York, 1982), p. 255.
Ibid., p. 244.
Ibid., p. 245.
Hirshon. And Also Teach Them to Read. r). 218.

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