HAVANA, April 25 With the US recently lifting various trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, the Caribbean island is expected to see a boost in tourism. Most tourists will be excited by Cuba’s beaches, cigars, coffee, rum and colonial architecture.
But if you are a bibliophile, you may want to immerse yourself in the rich culture of reading that took root in the country after the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961.
Cuba’s claim of having gone from just over 75% literacy to almost 100% literacy in a year would sound like propaganda if the statistics had not been ratified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and other reputed international organizations.
After Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, he announced a literacy campaign that aimed to teach every Cuban to read and write.
Around 250,000 people—students, professional teachers, factory workers and other volunteers—helped in educating the illiterate. Many left cities and lived in the countryside, where illiteracy rates were much higher. More than 50 years on, Cuba has the best education system in Latin America, according to the World Bank, and a rich tradition of reading. These are five places all bibliophiles and history buffs should visit.
Havana International Book Fair
Cuba is a dictatorship, and while the Castro-run state may have helped people learn how to read, it also does its best to decide what they read. Most of the book stores are owned and run by the state and fill their shelves with tomes on socialism, Castro and Che Guevara.
Cuba’s official Book Institute oversees the country’s publishing industry. Because it tries to keep books cheap, it cannot afford to print many copies of books by popular fiction writers, so for many people the only chance to get their hands on the works of such popular writers as Leonardo Padura and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez is at the Havana International Book Fair, held every February.
The fair begins in Havana and travels across the country.
The National Literacy Museum
Located in Havana, Cuba’s capital, the museum documents the 1961 campaign. Old photographs show young students teaching their less privileged countrymen in rural areas.
There is plenty of memorabilia, including the uniforms volunteers were given. Several countries supported Cuba’s literacy campaign: The Soviet Union donated books and stationery, people from European countries travelled to Cuba to join the volunteers, and China sent thousands of oil lanterns to allow volunteers to teach after dark in areas that had no electricity.
Some of these lanterns have been preserved in the museum. While there, you can watch the documentary film Maestra (Teacher) made by US film-maker Catherine Murphy, which includes interviews with some of the young volunteers who made the campaign successful.
Plaza de Armas book market
The Plaza de Armas, in the centre of Old Havana, was once used for military events and government ceremonies but is now home to a peaceful street market for second-hand books. Most of the books available are in Spanish, but there are some English books on sale.
Street musicians add to the atmosphere. The most popular author at the Plaza de Armas market seems to be Ernest Hemingway, who lived in ilable at the old bookshops on Havana’s O’Reilly and Obispo streets, but it is worth visiting them just to learn about their history.
Many of the stores have been open since the beginning of the 20th century and are home to rare books on philosophy. There is even a bookshop dedicated to poetry, La Moderna Poesia (Modern Poetry).