Our (Their) Man (Women) in Havana (Santiago)

October 5, 2010

By the end of my time in the Zona Reyna, I thought I had finally figured out how the literacy groups should be organized to ensure that women actually learn. There should be a municipal coordinator supervising each cluster of 4-5 groups, attending class sessions weekly to monitor attendance and provide feedback on instruction. This same coordinator should offer regular professional development opportunities to facilitators and lead monthly meetings. Each facilitator must have an assistant responsible for child care, even if said assistant only received payment in the form of groceries or additional corn. And most importantly, just as children who read on grade level at the 3rd grade have a much higher chance of success, so the first year- and even the first month- of any literacy program is crucial.

As you might have inferred, P badly botched the first year of the three year cycle, making my job next to impossible. I managed to reorganize two of the groups through sheer force of will, conducting home visits at 7 AM and smuggling desks through the broken window of the school when the women were locked out, and many of the women brought me food and thanked me with genuine gratitude on my last day. But I knew that it was a lost cause: after two years of instruction, less than 20% of the remaining participants know how to read and write. The women are out of time and patience, and after one frustrating experience participants are highly unlikely to try another adult literacy program.

So I did what all good college educated liberals do when they identify an urgent social problem: I wrote a report. A seven paged, single spaced essay in Spanish, offering a blow-by-blow analysis of what went wrong and when, and calling for a full-scale intervention to save the process from total failure. I included detailed descriptions of the dynamics of every group, the strengths and weaknesses of every facilitator, and a long list of bullet-pointed recommendations, and mailed it to everyone I worked with at P.

And like all earnest reports about urgent social problems, it remained unread.

Thankfully, I set up a meeting with me, my boss and J, the coordinator of the Zona Reyna project and one of my few allies at P, where J confirmed my reports of catastrophic disfunction and guilted my boss into agreeing to hire a replacement for me. That was affirming, but probably much too little, much too late.

So when I sat down with the director of the Cuban Yo Sí Puedo program in Santiago Atitlán and learned that they had not one but two local coordinators, childcare services at every site, and an approximate retention rate of 70%, I got a little teary.

Some of you might remember when, back in March, I went on at length about the Cuban school system’s impressive record of combatting inequality. The Cuban adult literacy model is almost equally famous. As I mentioned in my March posting, the 1961 literacy campaign reduced illiteracy from 23% to 4% in one year. But unlike other famous literacy campaigns- most notably in Nicaragua- the illiteracy rate in Cuba has remained low. The Yo Sí Puedo (Yes I can) model developed by Cuban experts is used throughout Latin America. Depending on how you look at it, Yo Sí Puedo, like the Cuban doctors who complete their residencies in the most remote corners of Guatemala and Bolivia, is either an impressive gesture of solidarity or shrewd foreign policy.

Although they are sharply (and probably justly) critical of CONALFA’s institutional inertia, the Cubans have an agreement to work through the organization’s infrastructure and municipal governments to implement their curriculum throughout the country. Yo Sí Puedo started small- one of the Cuban rules is that if you have few resources it is better to concentrate them in one or two municipalities- but in the next few years could become the national curriculum. (That will probably depend on how President Colom’s center-left party performs in next year’s elections, and if the far right Patriota party comes out on top, as is currently predicted.) This curriculum is a three month, sixty hour series of videotaped lessons designed to teach the rudiments of literacy skills. In each segment, a patient, steady teacher offers encouragement to a classroom of students who look decidedly middle-class and literate as they practice writing letters in a shaky hand. Facilitators follow with an additional hour of exercises to practice the concepts explained in the video. The advantage of this approach is that students receive consistent instruction regardless of their teacher’s skills.

I had heard a lot about the wonders of Yo Sí Puedo from my ex-guerrilla coworkers at P, so in my last full week in Guatemala I got J to set me up with his contacts in Santiago Atitlán, a gorgeous Tz’utujil town on Lake Atitlán. Said plan also had the distinct advantage of allowing me to stay with my lovely friend L, who lives in a pseudo-treehouse with an extremely adorable dog named Max. (Why didn’t I do my Fulbright there?) I ended up spending two afternoons visiting groups located around the town with the local coordinator and her assistant, a university student doing her practicum.

So, the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good is that the Cubans have certainly figured out how to mobilize their limited resources to create a structure that ensures that facilitators – who are paid only a very modest stipend- are somewhat accountable and that women learn at least the basics of reading and writing. A two month process of recruitment and motivational workshops for facilitators and students alike precede the start of classes. As I mentioned, the local coordinator visits each group once a week and keeps track of attendance and student progress. Two local women provide childcare so the women can focus on their classwork. Students are assessed at the beginning of the process, and more advanced students serve as assistants for the facilitators, offering encouragement and support to the beginners. There are regular trainings and a final evaluation: all the women write a letter.

I also think there is a useful lesson to be learned from Yo Sí Puedo’s modest scope. P sets high goals for its three year process, but lots of lofty talk of political empowerment doesn’t correspond to a set of concrete benchmarks. The limited time frame also means that it is easier to maintain momentum and motivation. The local coordinators admit that women don’t become fully literate in three months, but at least they know the letters of the alphabet and can write their names- something that women in Rosario Sacubul haven’t managed in a year and a half.

But even with all their expertise, the Yo Sí Puedo model has one obvious, glaring problem: the entire curriculum is in Spanish. And it was painfully obvious that most participants only speak Tz’utujil. Yes, Yo Sí Puedo people told me that the videos and instructional material should be translated for next year, but the fact that no one recognized that language would be a problem going in is unthinkable, illustrating the problems with any prepackaged curriculum. In many of the groups I visited, the women were barely watching the video, presumably waiting for their facilitator to translate the gist of the lesson.

Moreover, it would seem that poverty and petty corruption can undo even the best laid plans of educators. Just as in the Zona Reyna, facilitators struggled to find spaces with electricity and then had to collect money from women to pay for both the space and the electricity. (Yo Sí Puedo- like P- makes no allocation for space.) Overwhelmed by household work, women regularly showed up late and left early, much like the women I worked with in Rosario Sacubul, Saquixpec and Campamac. And attendance in several groups had dropped dramatically after it was revealed that a former local coordinator, who had -unbeknownst to the Cubans- sold  memberships in a weaving collective to women in the groups, had made up the collective and pocketed the collected fees.

And even with additional instructional support, the skill of the facilitators ranges widely. Some seemed apathetic and exhausted, while others were simply working with students to practice printing letters and words from the chalkboard. The only group I visited where all the women seemed equally engaged and excited was in a cramped second floor room of a house located on a run-down street in central Santiago. Light came only through one window, cut into the cinder block. The facilitator was teaching the letter C, alternating between Spanish and Tz’utujil as he invited his students to identify words that began with the sound. Students passed a ball to ensure that everyone contributed an answer, and the facilitator drew a picture on the board to explain the meaning of each new Spanish word. His enthusiasm was infectious, and students giggled as they shyly suggested words. As I watched him zip around the tiny space, I was reminded of the sunny classroom in Harlem where, for three years, I watched a similarly conscientious teacher make skilled use of dialogue to engage students and evaluate their comprehension.

In Cuba’s Academic Advantage, the book I raved about in March, Martin Carnoy emphasizes the importance of context in determining the success of Cuba’s school system. Yes, Cuba is poor, but the extreme poverty that characterizes life in rural Guatemala is practically nonexistent. Less poverty means healthier students and greater social stability, which- when combined with strong institutions- results in higher student achievement. The reason why Yo Sí Puedo is not  the magic literacy bullet is sometimes described as is not because it isn’t a strong model: it’s just a strong Cuban model being implemented in a non-Cuban context. In some strange way, my visit to Yo Sí Puedo was reassuring. Things were bad in the Zona Reyna, but we were also negotiating challenges that we had absolutely no power to change: poverty, machismo, and very, very limited resources. Even if P had started out stronger, it might still have failed to achieve its goals.

I swear, I’ll only go on about the Cubans for one (or two) paragraph(s) more.

It is a dirty little secret that State-department funded students frequently flirt with Cuba during their time abroad. Some take this flirtation farther than others. Maybe we do it because we are desperately trying to save our leftist street cred, maybe we do it because things are just so unimaginably bad in places like Guatemala that Cuba- food shortages and all- starts to sound like a much better idea.

I don’t think I ever completely succumbed to the romanticism that tends to afflict lefty Fulbrighters, but I do think the dream of Cuba still serves as proof that just maybe, Latin American independence is really possible. When we were driving back from the Zona Reyna, J, who was raised in Cuba, told the story of how he Cuban doctors cured him of a nasty case of tuberculosis he had picked up in Mexico. When he was diagnosed at the age of 11 in 1983, he was the first case of childhood tuberculosis that had been seen in Cuba for fifteen years.

In 2001 alone, 2,801 cases of tuberculosis were registered in Guatemala.

“Cuba is an island in place, time and politics,” J said. “Poverty, capitalism, these things are inhuman. But Cuba, Cuba is human.”

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