Nicaragua’s Pedagogical Effort 30 Years on


Thirty years ago, a mass literacy crusade captured the imagination of several people ensconced in several parts of the world. The country in question was the Central American state of Nicaragua and the crusade occurred a year after a revolutionary movement wrested power from the grasp of a dictatorial regime and its oligarchy. This 1979 revolution attracted several people from different parts of the world, many declaring themselves as internationalists. They arrived in Managua and other places in droves -from Canada, the US, Spain, Ireland … There was hope. People who believed in a world not as it is, but as it can and should be, were willing to contribute to the development of a revolutionary Nicaragua. The country’s people, or rather the majority of them, led by a revolutionary group, had stood up to the might of the United States, the dominant power in the region. A change had finally come!

And yet attempts were made, as with the Cuban revolution, to destabilize the revolution through what was known as the Contra War – counterrevolutionary forces who often wreaked havoc with their sorties from neighboring Honduras. There were deaths throughout the eighties. They involved peasants, popular educators, health workers and engineers. And this did not deter the government, democratically elected in the early 80s, from carrying out what came across as an innovative health and education program. The literacy crusade, coordinated by Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal, was probably the highlight of the educational reforms. It was intended to provide people with what they craved – free quality education and health. It did more than this. The crusade helped keep the revolutionary momentum going. Everyone and everything was on the go. A large scale “offensive” was carried out against illiteracy. In a conception that stretches my imagination to recall Shakespeare’s final “reconciliation plays” (see “A Winter’s Tale”), people from the city, who had the advantage of a good formal education and were, therefore, likely to play a role in future as the governing political class, were sent to the rural areas to live with and learn from the peasants while also teaching them literacy. At least, with regard to the overall conception, if not its execution, this was a wonderful idea – forging a “national popular” unity, bringing together “town” and “country,” with people from each side learning from each other. While professionals were welcome and had important roles to play, they were encouraged to work in tandem with members of the community. This was very much the case in the health sector where health popular educators were engaged. One such popular educator is Maria Hamlyn Zuniga. I interviewed her twice, the first time the year I met her in Toronto (1990)(1) and the second time in 2005. This is what she had to say about the Nicaraguan popular education program:

“Popular education was fundamental to the transformation from a dictatorship to a new society based on equality and justice for all. At one point, over one third of the Nicaraguan population, over one million people, were involved in some form of education. The formal education from pre-school to adult education was free and universal. There were over 45,000 popular educators involved in the carrying out programs in the communities around the country – continuing the efforts of the literacy crusade in spite of the counter-revolutionary war. Informal education was common in every sector, with thousands of persons receiving workshops and education for living in the transition from the dictatorship to a more just and equal society. In health, over 100,000 persons, especially women and youth, were involved in the popular health brigades working on health promotion and prevention in all the municipalities, towns and rural areas of the country. These popular education programs depended, to a large degree, on the generosity and support of international solidarity.”(2)

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The attempt was to propagate a philosophy of education based on the principles of popular education said to be followed in the Christian-based communities in Brazil and elsewhere, and which were said to have been promoted prior to the overthrow of the dictatorship by Jesuits and their helpers from the University in Central America (UCA) at Managua. It was meant to be a bottom-up, democratic approach to learning, starting from where the people are. This is in keeping with the ideas of Paulo Freire and other popular educators; Freire was, indeed, a consultant to the Nicaraguan literacy campaign.

Granted, overzealousness, inexperience (many of the literacy brigadistas were pupils attending the lycées) and the need to carry out the program in a period of three months made this a “far from perfect” venture.(3) Some would even go as far as to argue that it represented a travesty of Freirean principles with so-called dialogue taking the form of a mechanistically administered questionnaire. Furthermore, changing the mindset of a people to make their own decisions is quite difficult after years of conditioning that accustomed them to expect directives from above. Prescription was the order of the day in the dictatorial context. This prescription, referred to in education circles, following Freire, as “Banking Education,” stifles creativity. People begin to “fear freedom.” As Zuniga argued, based on her own experience in health education in Nicaragua, “there was always the tendency toward expecting the orientations for the educational programs to come from the Ministry of Health rather than being developed at the local level as a response to the particular situation.”(4) But as far as the underlying ideas go, a wonderful educational and social concept was born or rather reborn. It was all in keeping with the notion of a country roused for transformation.

I say “reborn” because this campaign echoed a similar effort in the region 20 years or so earlier – the Cuban literacy campaign. And it paralleled another simultaneous effort in the Caribbean, that of the New Jewel Movement in Grenada.(5) All efforts and especially their sequel, a broader popular education program based on similar pedagogical principles, were the target of saboteurs; the Grenadian one was brutally crushed following the overthrow of the Grenadian revolution. With regard to Nicaragua, the Monroe Doctrine, as a result of which the USA is meant to guard this region from the intervention of any European power (the specter of the old Soviet Union loomed large in the context of the cold war), made its presence felt. The mere mention of Nicaragua – “the one that got away” during Carter’s tenure of office – seemed to be enough to make Reagan see red. This was a revolution that had to be crushed and, as is always the case when a revolutionary popular pedagogy is at the heart of it, the pedagogues involved risk life and limb in going about their teaching. Freire was arrested after the 1964 coup in Brazil because of his pedagogical activities. Popular educators caught teaching literacy in places like Guatemala and El Salvador,(6) in the midst of a civil war, were also deemed subversive and were punished by death. Popular educators caught going about their work by counterrevolutionaries often suffered the same fate. In a conversation with Freire, the radical American educator, Myles Horton recalls his horrific experience of witnessing the corpse of a popular educator with a slit throat.(7) Horton had been an international observer during the Nicaraguan general elections.

The Contra War proved to be the best means of undermining the revolution with the people gradually being worn out. As expected in situations characterized by a civil war, repressive measures had to be taken by a government whose first years in power were marked by forgiveness, including the forgiveness of those who were guilty of torture and other callous acts during the dictatorship, unlike the first years of the Cuban revolution. Repression also meant banning newspapers like La Prensa when suspected of favoring the contras. Such measures allowed right-wing hacks in the Western media a field day in terms of portraying the Sandinistas in a negative light. The heavy toll in terms of human lives led the people to vote for an end to the war in 1990 – which saw Dona Violeta Chamorro’s UNO win the elections. Many of the gains of the revolution were gradually lost as structural adjustment programs made their presence felt. The ideals of the revolution and the pedagogical concepts involved in the Literacy campaign of 1980 soon became a thing of the past, only to be savored in the museum dedicated to this effort. The rest is quite a familiar depressing story which Zuniga takes up:

… from 1990 on, the excessive requirements of the Breton Woods institutions has resulted in the total dismantling of the programs of the RPS, including restructuring and privatization under the guise of “modernization of the health and education sectors.” Nicaragua is among the most highly indebted nations in the world. It has the most severe poverty in Latin America after the regrettable state of Haiti.(8)

What makes the situation even worse is that the Sandinista movement, which derives its name from the popular national hero, Augusto Cesar Sandino, who led a national revolt against the occupying US marine force in the 1930s and which was founded by a schoolteacher, Carlos Fonseca Amador, is a pale shadow of its former self – and that is putting it mildly. As Zuniga states, there is polarization in the party, with the group supporting Daniel Ortega, who was president in the first 11 years of the revolution, having “become part of the new entrepreneurial class, the new oligarchy in Nicaragua, which maintains power and privilege without regard for the poverty and the misery in which the vast majority of the population are living. In part, this is the result of the fact that nobody was prepared for the defeat, the changes and the abuses that followed the fall of the Sandinistas from power in 1990.”

The Sandinistas are accused of having sold out, of having engaged in a pact with the Liberal Party, which preserves the political status quo. They are no longer perceived as providing a popular alternative and, therefore, as serving as a counterhegemonic force. And, yet, the legacy of the pedagogical reforms so spectacularly ushered in 30 years ago through the literacy campaign can still be found in the work of NGOs and the work of people in dispersed territories who have kept the flame of revolutionary pedagogical organization alive. From the “terrible beauty” that was once born, there emerges hope. There is hope in the work of those determined not to allow the forces of Neoliberalism to crush those dreams entertained three decades ago. It is opportune in this 30th anniversary of the Literacy Cruzada to revive memories of these events, taking into account not only the successes involved, but also the failures. Such memories can trigger the dream of an alternative pedagogy that, in combination with several other complementary efforts (education is not an independent variable; it does not change things on its own), can usher in another world that is possible.


1. Zuniga, M. (1993), “Popular Education and Social Transformation in Nicaragua” (Zuniga interviewed by Peter Mayo) in Education (Malta) , Vol. 5, No. 1., pp.33-40.
2. Interview with Zuniga in Carmel Borg and Peter Mayo (2007), “Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interview,” New York: Peter Lang.
3. For a comprehensive appraisal of the literacy and popular education campaigns in Nicaragua and the rest of the country’s educational system, see Robert Arnove’s 1986, “Education and Revolution in Nicaragua,” New York: Praeger. And its sequel “Education as Contested Terrain,” Nicaragua (1979-1993) Boulder: Westview Press.
4. Ibid.
5. For an extensive account of education in these contexts see the chapter by Carlos Torres and Daniel Schugurensky in Carlos Alberto Torres’ 1990 book, “The Politics of Nonformal Education in Latin America,” Praeger.
6. I would recommend the work of John Hammond here. See for instance his 1991 interview “Popular Education in the Midst of Guerrilla War: An Interview with Julio Portillo” in Journal of Education (Boston) , Vol. 173, No. 1, pp. 91 – 106.
7. See Myles Horton and Paulo Freire’s 1990 “talking book,” “We make the road by walking,” Temple University Press.
8. See Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s biography of Che Guevara: “Senza Perdere la Tenerezza. Bita e morte di Ernesto Vhe Guevara,” EST, 2000 – Italian version of Ernesto Guevara También conocido como El Che. Interview with Zuniga in Carmel Borg and Peter Mayo (2007), “Public Intellectuals, Radical Democracy and Social Movements. A Book of Interview,” New York: Peter Lang.