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A brief history of the FSLN's work to eradicate
the scourge of illiteracy in Nicaragua

Twenty eight years after the National Literacy Crusade took Nicaragua's marginalized barrios and communities by storm, thousands of young people are again involved in a national process which aims to eliminate illiteracy from the country altogether.

by Karla Jacobs, September 1st 2008

"After poverty, illiteracy is the most destructive form of social violence available to those who benefit from national economic production. Illiteracy does not just destroy a person's self respect, but dissolves human dignity and, together with poverty, ends up transforming men into disposable tools and victims of alcoholism, drug addiction and prostitution. General A.C. Sandino understood this problem and expressed his desire to eliminate illiteracy among the army of campesinos that helped him defeat the [US] invaders.

During the bloody Somocista military dictatorship, illiteracy was necessary and expedient in facilitating the [dictatorship's] ransacking of Nicaragua. Within the Sandinista Front, led by Carlos Fonseca, education of illiterate [members] was always a fundamental component of the revolutionary program. From within the Somocista system, in 1964, the newspaper La Prensa promoted a literacy campaign which reached 50,000 people with the support of 5,000 brigadistas.

This campaign demonstrated popular support for the idea of eradicating illiteracy but was attacked and oppressed by the Somoza dictatorship despite the fact that the campaign did not attempt to raise awareness about social issues." (1)

General Sandino was proud of the fact that "the number of illiterate officials [in the ranks of my army] could be counted on the fingers of one hand with a few left over," but lamented that "a lack of teachers and other elements" meant that the achievements of an attempt to reduce illiteracy among the soldiers "were barely perceptible." (2) Four decades later founder of the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation), Carlos Fonseca, promised the campesinos who supported the Sandinista guerrillas that one of the first things a revolutionary government would do would be to carry out a massive literacy campaign. (3)

Before the triumph of the revolution in 1979 a special work team within the FSLN had drafted a plan for the proposed national literacy campaign. This plan was taken up by Fernando Cardenal, appointed coordinator of the National Literacy Crusade (CNA) by the Government of National Reconstruction in early August 1979, just a couple of weeks after FSLN troops marched triumphant into Managua.

Cardenal studied successful literacy programs in other countries including Cuba and Mozambique, using those countries' experiences to come up with the CNA's workbook El Amanecer del Pueblo (the Dawn of the People) and set about coordinating the training of 95,582 literacy brigadiers. These brigadiers made up the Popular Literacy Army which, on March 24 1980 swore faithfulness to the crusade's objectives and the FSLN's revolutionary principles before setting out to the most marginalized and remote parts of the country.

The events which followed have been set down in history as one of the most successful educational achievements of human kind. In just five months the Popular Literacy Army, consisting of nearly 100,000 Nicaraguan students, teachers, health workers, office workers and housewives worked together with the most impoverished sectors of Nicaraguan society to reduce the literacy rate from 50.36% to 12.94% (see table below).

On August 23 1980 the high command of the Popular Literacy Army issued a statement to inform "the National Directorate of the FSLN, the Government of National Reconstruction, our heroic people and the world ... that after five months of arduous struggle in the countryside, mountains and cities of Nicaragua we have taught 406,056 Nicaraguans to read and write."(4)

The table below shows the literacy rate before and after the crusade in the seventeen different departments of Nicaragua, and (in the final column) in the country as a whole. The initial literacy rate figures are based on a census carried out by the Popular Literacy Army prior to the CNA.
cna results

graphic courtesy of

Twenty six years later, on August 23 2006 the FSLN announced it was implementing a new National Literacy Campaign with the aim of counteracting the increase of the illiteracy rate thanks to 16 years of neo liberal governments. According to UNICEF the illiteracy rate stood at 23% in 2005,(5) although experts agree it could be a lot higher. The FSLN, at that point in opposition, controlled 87 of the 153 local governments. It was this fact that enabled the party to carry out a successful literacy campaign benefiting close to 100,000 Nicaraguans in less than a year.

The implementation of the National Literacy Campaign has been made possible with financial and technical support from Cuba and Venezuela. The campaign is based on the Cuban method Yo, Sí Puedo (Yes I Can) which has also been used as the basis for similar campaigns in numerous countries in the region including Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia.

In June 2007, with the FSLN now in government, the Ministry of Education took over coordination of the National Literacy Campaign. This has increased access to financial, infrastructural and other resources for the continued and extended implementation of the project.

In June 2008 Mario Rivera, coordinator of the National Literacy Campaign, informed the national press about a census being carried out by the National Union of Students of Nicaragua (UNEN) and the Sandinista Youth "19th of July." This census will inform what Rivera described as the "final offensive" of the campaign which aims to eradicate illiteracy from Nicaragua altogether by July 19 2009, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Popular Sandinista Revolution.

According to figures provided recently by Rivera over 21,000 young people (mainly secondary and university students) have taught 274,097 people to read and write at more than 15,600 learning points which have popped up in town halls, churches, individual houses and other centers in all 153 municipalities of the country. (6) Among other tangible achievements of the campaign, Managua and another forty municipalities have been declared illiteracy free zones.

The Yo, Sí Puedo workbooks have been translated into the main indigenous languages of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast where literacy classes are taking place in dozens of indigenous communities. The Ministry of Education is also working to extend access to literacy classes for deaf, blind and disabled people. On top of this literacy classes are offered to prisoners in most of the country's jails.

On August 23 2008, as part of the celebrations of the 28th anniversary of the National Literacy Crusade, thousands of young people involved in today's literacy campaign took part in an event in Managua. Among the speakers were numerous students who have given classes in impoverished barrios and communities over the last two years and representatives of the main student and youth movements involved - the UNEN, the Federation of Secondary Students (FES) and the Sandinista Youth "19th of July."

During the event President Daniel Ortega swore in 2,000 new members of the Sandinista Youth and spoke about the importance of young people in the current process of change and how today's literacy campaign is a threat to the FSLN's adversaries.  

"Of course all this [the actions and achievements of young people as part of the literacy campaign and other social programs] worries the oligarchy and their sell-out allies, it worries those who do not care about the people and who are saying ... Look how many young people [the government has mobilized]. What will
they say? That we are training terrorists, that all of you are terrorists. Terrorists who set off bombs ... yes, we are going to set off bombs [to eradicate] extreme poverty, so that extreme poverty disappears; yes, we are going to set off bombs ... so that ignorance disappears. This is the strength of youth, a youth armed with consciousness, fortified in the ideology of a Revolution which triumphed on the 19th of July 1979 and is here to stay in Nicaragua, and is here to stay in Central America, in Latin America, in the world.

I consider you all as the children of Andres Castro, you are the children of Zeledón, the children of Sandino, the children of Fonseca. ... Today more than ever, the mobilization of young people is a determining force for the eradication of illiteracy, ... it is determinant in order to continue strengthening groups like Builders of the Present and the Future, ... to continue strengthening the Ecological Brigades, the brigades in defense of the environment. ...

How nervous ... our adversaries will be watching the faces of the young people [here today]! And they will say that you are fanatics, that you are terrorists, and who knows what else they will say, that you are not democratic, that this is a dictatorship, ... like they say every day.

Their [régime] was a dictatorship, when they deprived people of health care. Their [régime] was a dictatorship when they stole the people's education away for 16 years. ... In reality selfishness and capitalism has driven them mad. Pope John Paul II spoke of "savage capitalism ... [he said] that the people, the poor cannot wait." The Nicaraguan youth cannot wait and here you are to wage these battles." (7)

Without a doubt one of the FSLN's objectives in implementing the National Literacy Campaign is to strengthen and expand support among young people. From a purely cynical point of view critics might argue that the FSLN is trying to increase support from young people with populist programs in order to secure votes and remain in power (the majority of Nicaraguans liable to vote are under 30). This argument is used over and again by critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his government's social programs.

Those who believe in the FSLN leadership's ideological integrity, however, argue that, the effort to encourage young people's support of and participation in social programs goes beyond crude populism. In 1980 Fernando Cardenal described two of the main objectives of the CNA to be "to promote the participation of young people in the process of national change" and "to take advantage of the mobilization of young people to begin other projects of national interest." (8)

Only time will tell what the real social and political implications are for Nicaragua as a result of the country's second national literacy campaign in 30 years.

(1) Text taken from "Origines de la Cruzada Nacional de Alfabetización"
available online:
(2) Maldito Pais, by José Roman, Ed. Pez y Serpiente, 1979.
(3) Compendio de "La cruzada en Marcha," Organo Oficial de la Cruzada Nacional
de Alfabetización del Ministerio de Educación, available online: