Subject: SMH: In East Timor, Cubans bring democracy, one letter at a time

The Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, September 5, 2009

Cubans bring democracy, one letter at a time

Peter Quiddington

SOON after East Timor voted for independence in 1999, Cuba marshalled its forces and sent hundreds of medical instructors to the tiny country, while preparing to receive many more Timorese for training back in Cuba.

From 2004, the Cubans launched the second stage of their grassroots assault ­ a national adult literacy campaign.

East Timor has one of the highest rates of adult illiteracy, at more than 50 per cent. In some remote areas it is as much as 90 per cent, and this is a big factor holding back economic development and building democracy.

About 300 medical and 50 literacy instructors from Cuba now work throughout East Timor and this ground force has made inroads into the country's worst health and literacy problems. To the embarrassment of the Australian and international aid establishments, Cuba has imported a successful model of international development.

The efficacy of the Cuban health program has been reported by Dr Tim Anderson at the University of Sydney. He monitors the advance of Cuban medical programs across the Pacific and has written extensively on their success in delivering basic health care and tackling elevated child mortality rates. Earlier this year, Associate Professor Bob Boughton, an adult education expert at the University of New England, reported on success with the Cuban adult literacy campaign, noting that it ran on less than one-third of the budget of conventional Western programs. Domingas Arouja lives in the hills south-east of the capital, Dili, and her life is typical for a mother of a young family in rural East Timor, where a population explosion is occurring. She has seven children and lives with her extended family in a cluster of cottages, clad with thatching and corrugated iron. They barely subsist on a few lean crops and rice brought in from Dili.

Like most families their great hope is to escape rural poverty by finding paid work, prompting many adults in her community to take part in a three-month basic literacy program run by the Cubans. Some graduates of the program are now a little angry that they do not have jobs, as they understood ­ or perhaps misunderstood ­ that this would be the automatic outcome.

However, there have been small changes to their daily lives. Domingas, who is self-assured and positive about the program, explains (in her native Portuguese) that she now encourages her children to go to school. Knowing how to write simple words means that she can now help her children with their homework, a fact that clearly makes her immensely proud.

The Cuban literacy campaign aims at achieving social outcomes and uses a novel system where a number is linked to a letter, which is then linked to a word that has some significance or use to the student. It also uses a video system to engage participants, who can watch members of their own community learning how the system works.

Fretilin adopted an earlier form of the literacy program in the early 1970s, taking the ideas from the work of a radical Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. The program functioned ad hoc during the Indonesian occupation, but never ceased, even as the Fretilin military wing, Falintil, retreated into the mountains.

It was re-established in 2002 and the Cubans began to assist with a national program from 2004. According to Dr Boughton, the success of the campaign means that about 250,000 adults are on target to achieve basic literacy by 2014. However, because of the politics surrounding the Cuban campaign critical post-literacy funding is in doubt.

Zelia Fenandes recently completed an honours thesis at the National University of East Timor in which she examined the program. She says the squeeze is political and in recent months there have been shortages of salaries and money for fuel. (The Cubans ride small motorcycles.)

Critics of the program point out that the level of literacy is regarded as below some international standards, though this is disputed. But its defenders point out that its aim is a basic level of literacy, which must be built upon.

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