There’s a great statue of a long-haired John Lennon sitting on a park bench in Havana, Cuba. I was oblivious to its existence until several weeks ago. Reporting on the death of George Martin (record producer, often called “the Fifth Beatle”) my local newspaper ran a photo of him sitting on that bench with an immortalized version of his old friend, John.
When the media isn’t talking about all the Presidential candidates, it’s often talking about Cuba. Whether or not to lift the trade embargo, President Obama’s historic visit, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, etc. But I still know very little about the country, apart from where it’s located–southeast of Florida–and the fact that Fidel Castro incited the revolution that overthrew the Batista dictatorship, then became Top Comrade for something like a gazillion years, and then (no surprise) passed the communist reins onto his younger brother Raul. In high school, I also learned about the Bay of Pigs fiasco which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis show-down with Russia that could have turned into Nuclear War. But there is much I hadn’t been taught, or else it was long forgotten.
Seeing the Lennon statue made me want to learn more. I did some research and also talked to a young friend getting her PhD in history. Elizabeth has been to Cuba a number of times.
John Lennon was murdered in New York City in 1980, but he had to wait exactly twenty more years for a seat on that park bench in Cuba. In 1964, the Castro regime had declared a nationwide ban on Beatles music. The Fab Four represented the worst part of capitalism: vulgar consumerism. Bell bottoms and long hair on boys & men were a no-no. Cubans were jailed for anti-social behavior (including homosexuality) and forced into labor camps. Elizabeth told me things began to loosen up as of 1972, and by the year 2000, Fidel had reimagined Lennon as a political dissident (hounded by the U.S. government) who was dedicated to emancipating the down-trodden. “I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality,” Fidel said, unveiling the Lennon statue as All You Need is Love played in the background.
The total about-face seems kind of funny, but Fidel wasn’t unique in this regard. Even in the United States, political figures see enemies who are later seen as friends. Yet I have no wish to move to Cuba. But I fervently wish we could have Cuba’s adult literacy rate: close to 100 percent! Even if it’s a hopeful or slightly fraudulent number (what government tells the absolute truth?) education in Cuba is a source of civic pride. All schools are free, even at the university level. Meanwhile, the U.S. has a literacy rate of 86 percent. Some experts dispute this number as too high. But even if you accept it, that means 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read. Studies show that 21 percent of adults read below a fifth grade level, and a scary number of high school graduates (19 percent) can’t read.
Castro did something interesting back in 1961. In Cuba, they called it the Year of Literacy. Fidel mobilized many thousands of young people–middle school age and up–to go out into the countryside and teach the poor farmers how to read. Apparently it was very successful.
Today it seems strange that a poor communist country like Cuba has a higher literacy rate than we do. Most people I know think of education as the great liberator. Through education, people get ideas–sometimes ‘outside the box’ or radical ideas. But as Elizabeth pointed out, education can also be a huge socializing agent, especially when the state controls most of what you can read and learn. Like, for example, F is for Fidel and C is for Communism?
Our own Justice Department claims that the link between delinquency, violence and crime is WELDED to reading failure. I think we’d all sleep better knowing more people could read. In the U.S., we have freedom. We’ve got great libraries and access to all types of literature. We’ve also got fast computers and great wealth. In the race for literacy, it’s not just Cuba who has us beat. Surely we can find our own creative ways to teach and inspire more people to read.
That Lennon statue was created by the artist and sculptor Jose Villa. I’d like to thank him, and the photographer who took the photo, and the newspaper who ran it, for everything I recently learned about Cuba. (Only a tiny fraction of my new knowledge appears in this blog.) If I couldn’t read, or read well, I wouldn’t be able to say that.