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Examining Bernie Sanders' Comments On Literacy In Castro-Era Cuba


Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, a point that Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made repeatedly. On "60 Minutes," he asked, quote, "is that a bad thing, even though Fidel Castro did it?" Well, the subject came up again last night during the Democratic debate.


BERNIE SANDERS: What I said is what Barack Obama said in terms of Cuba; that Cuba made progress on education. Yes, I think....


SANDERS: Really? Really? Literacy programs are bad.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yes, because there's no comparing those two...

KELLY: Pete Buttigieg interrupting there. Sanders was then accused of misrepresenting remarks that President Obama had made back in 2016. But we wanted to fact-check what is true and what is not about Cuba and literacy, so we have brought in author and Cuba scholar Andy Gomez. He joins me from Coral Gables, Fla.

Andy Gomez, welcome.

ANDY GOMEZ: Good afternoon.

KELLY: I want to go back to where this all began - Fidel Castro. He comes to power in the late 1950s. He saw education as crucial in consolidating the revolution, his revolution. How did he carry that out? How did he carry out a literacy campaign?

GOMEZ: Well, the interesting thing, to put Senator Sanders' comments in proper context, in 1950, Cuba, Costa Rica and Chile already had one of the highest literacy rates in all of Latin America at 80%. When Castro came into power in 1959, he wanted to give more access to Afro Cubans and farmers in rural areas.

KELLY: He wanted to get that literacy rate closer to 100%.

GOMEZ: But the trick to this whole thing was, in his narcissistic mind, he has used education to indoctrinate the children to a Marxist ideology.

KELLY: You mean that almost literally; that when they teach the alphabet in Cuba, it was C is for Castro, F is for Fidel. Is that right?


KELLY: So this was education as indoctrination.

GOMEZ: I witnessed this, and I have the books myself here with me. And not only that, but he later used the same books and sold them to Nicaragua and other countries that Cuba was having an influence in trying to sell that Marxist ideology. And they were very effective.

KELLY: I want to get to that, but I want to get to how this unfolded for generations, you're describing, of students in Cuba learning to read and write. I read one reaction from an artist named Tania Bruguera.

GOMEZ: Yes, of course.

KELLY: She's Cuban. She talked to The New Yorker, responding to Bernie Sanders and his comments. And here's her quote. She said, "yes, they taught us to read and write, and then they forbade us to read what we want and write what we think."

GOMEZ: And that's at very good point. Not every book is available or - freely to all the citizens in Cuba, including children. The government decides what books are allowed. And even at the university - I've spoken to many faculty at the university in Havana and other universities. There's no freedom of speech, so students, for speaking out or faculty for speaking out, have actually been expelled. So in one hand, he wants to increase the literacy, which, by the way, in Cuba today is 100%. But we have to keep in mind that he used that education - giving greater access to education for his own means, for (unintelligible).

KELLY: I mean, you're describing a system in which education and authoritarian rule were very much intertwined...

GOMEZ: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...Where they were inseparable and self-reinforcing. Bring us up to today. Fidel Castro is gone. You said the literacy rate is 100%. Is Bernie Sanders right to give - I mean, that's a great thing, right? - 100% literacy rate. Is he right to give some credit for that?

GOMEZ: Absolutely. But, again, what Senator Sanders forgets to mention or recognize - the purpose for why it was used and why the emphasis on reading and writing - not only that. I have to tell you, social sciences - I have books here on history and international relations that are completely - it's completely Marxist ideology or even Cuban history, where - for many children, Cuban history started in 1959, which, of course, you know is not true.

KELLY: So if you could have been up there last night at the debate questioning Bernie Sanders, asking a follow-up on this, what would it have been? What would you want him to answer?

GOMEZ: Well, I think I first would have respectfully corrected him and put his comment into proper context. And then the real question that I would ask Bernie Sanders - as an academic, I really don't understand what's a socialist Democrat? To me, that equals leftist communism, and it scares me a little bit.

KELLY: That sounds like a subject for an entirely separate conversation...

GOMEZ: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...With you for the next one.

GOMEZ: Absolutely.

KELLY: That's Andy Gomez, professor emeritus of Cuban studies at the University of Miami and author of "Social Challenges Facing Cuba."

Professor Gomez, thank you.

GOMEZ: My pleasure; good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.