What Bernie Won’t Tell You About Fidel Castro

Five inconvenient truths about Cuban education
March 11, 2020 Updated: March 12, 2020


A key ingredient of communist regimes is deception. From Soviet-era space rockets to Cuban medical care and athletes, they show the outside world an illusion of prosperity.

Since reality always catches up, only those extremely ignorant or naive can fall for the lies for very long. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a leading Democratic presidential nominee, is neither—he’s a veteran propagandist apologizing for his ideological bedfellow’s crimes.

During a recent interview with Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes,” Sanders defended his accommodating view of Fidel Castro, the late communist dictator who ruled Cuba with an iron fist for five decades.

While claiming he remained “very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba,” he complained to Cooper that “it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing?”

He doubled down during a town-hall debate in South Carolina: “The truth is the truth.” Like clockwork, Cuban newspaper Granma—the regime’s mouthpiece and lone newspaper on the island—praised Sanders.

The devil is in the details, and Bernie’s gotcha comeback left out a major one: Cuba’s touted literacy program didn’t intend to form free, educated individuals. Instead, it paved the way for universal communist indoctrination. You can forget homeschooling in Cuba.

1. Propaganda Operation

Like most good things in communist Cuba, the literacy program was a well-crafted propaganda operation. Castro, after his successful coup in 1959 to depose military dictator Fulgencio Batista, knew he had to transform the common folks’ minds to accept the new official credo, Marxism–Leninism. Adherents know you can’t efficiently brainwash people if they are illiterate. The monopoly stranglehold over education, rebranded, became the perfect public-relations guise to garner international support.

Therefore, he launched literal literacy brigades across the country, complete with military parades and songs about taking up arms in defense of the revolution. His goal, however, wasn’t that marginalized Cubans could read and write whatever they wanted, Marx forbid. The Cuban revolution specifically called for new men and women who could accept the looming sacrifices.

One of the many patriotic posters plastered on city walls to support the nationwide effort made it clear: A schoolboy striking an eagle with a pencil read, “Every Cuban who learns to read and write is a new blow against imperialism.”

Georgina Arias, a woman who took part in the literacy brigades, told the Spanish daily El País that instructors would ask peasants to write their first-ever letters to—you guessed it—El Comandante.

2. Literacy Rates Were Already High

Literacy rates were lower prior to the Cuban revolution, but they were much better than most Latin-American countries. Castro’s oft-repeated claim that Cuban illiteracy before his rule was “over 40 percent” is a callous lie. It was closer to 23 percent, and literacy programs predated Castro. He built on a solid structure, not a blank slate.

Literacy rates increased after a year, but when you’re a dictator, you have one big advantage: you can just tell 270,000 people to leave everything behind to help you, and they can’t refuse.

3. Government-Run Schooling

Once the regime could feed the population communist propaganda, it embarked on another crusade to get all children into government-run schools. At first look, universal schooling might sound like another of Sanders’s “not-bad-things,” but education in Cuba—now and then—is a pretext for social control.

Castro nationalized all private schools in 1961, many of them Catholic. Religion became a taboo subject in class. Teaching children ideas contrary to communism became illegal. To this day, textbooks are full of praise for Castro and communist ideology.

Armando Valladares, a Cuban poet and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, explains Cuban schools teach children “the Communist Party is owed loyalty above everything else” and that “they must denounce their parents if they criticize or do anything against the Revolution or its leaders.”

With public schools the only game in town, there’s no escape from compulsory communist indoctrination. The 1978 Code for Children and the Youth states: “Society and the state work for the efficient protection of youth against all influences contrary to their communist formation. … The school is the basic educational unit that works decisively toward the communist formation of pupils.” This remains in force; when two Christian preachers tried to homeschool their children in 2019, they were sentenced to prison.

4. Purging Dissenters

The literacy program was a pretext to purge perfectly literate but dissenting educators. Countless school teachers, university professors, and intellectuals eventually had to flee the country to pursue their careers.

Fabiola Santiago, an award-winning journalist with the Miami Herald who went to school in Castro’s Cuba, tells how her mother lost her teaching post over her refusal to parrot communist dogma in class. Several private schools shut down by the regime relocated to the United States with their faculty, such as Belen Jesuit Preparatory, which even Castro attended in his teen years.

5. Communist Youth Group

To further cement his hold on future generations, Castro banned Cuba’s Boy Scouts in 1961 and replaced it with an ideological copycat: the pioneers, a youth organization that was the staple of one-party communist tyrannies such as Soviet Russia and China.

The José Martí Pioneer Organization claims all its members—1.5 million boys and girls aged between 5 and 15 years old—are voluntary. Every Cuban family knows better, though, than to resist enrollment. In third grade, Santiago suffered reprisals from school administrators, who demoted her from the top of the honor roll for failing to wear the pioneers’ red scarf.

Every morning before starting school, pioneritos chanted, “Pioneers for communism. Let us be like Che!” That’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the iconic Argentine guerrilla leader who fought alongside Castro against Batista. But he was no role model, rather a cold-blooded mass murderer who put homosexuals in labor camps. As a reminder of its totalitarian reach, the Cuban regime stations pioneers next to ballot boxes in its sham elections.

Besides indoctrination masquerading as education, Fidel Castro’s legacy includes at least 6,800 lives terminated by firing squads and extrajudicial assassinations. Political prisoners over the decades have been too many to count. Travel restrictions, censorship, and crushing poverty have condemned an entire nation to misery.

Sanders can’t claim ignorance of these facts, collected and denounced by reputable human-rights organizations. Perhaps, then, his intention is to prepare U.S. voters. If he were to pursue his socialist agenda as president, he would get right to work for supposedly well-intentioned programs—such as universal health care and college for all—and excuse himself of the economic devastation and loss of liberty that would surely follow.

Daniel Duarte contributed to this article.

Fergus Hodgson is the founder and executive editor of Latin American intelligence publication Econ Americas. He is also the roving editor of Gold Newsletter and a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.