Flor de la Revolución Special School, Punta Brava. Photo: Liborio Noval

Like someone who lights an eternal flame in the bottom of your heart Fidel, this “telluric force” – as Che called him – reasoned with profuse intelligence that only education would lead to the path of freedom, expressing within it an idea, a creative action, an understanding of life.

To say that glimmers of such consciousness emerged at an early age, his parents Lina and Ángel were delighted by his thirst for knowledge and love for his studies; to note that this hunger was fed by Varela, Luz and Martí; and attest to the fact that it was at university where his firm and unwavering conviction that education is “man’s most powerful weapon,” was shaped; is a brief review of a never-ending journey in the pursuit of knowledge, and to build the foundations which make and shape a virtuous country.

Since then, every morning parents have looked upon the over 1.7 million children and adolescents from elementary to high-school education, dressed in their white, red, blue, yellow or caramel colored uniforms, in wonder.

This is the word that best describes a nation which has almost the same number of university graduates, and as a prime example of efforts to address pending issues, is currently perfecting its education system with the assurance that, as the “young rebel” would say, it is vital to continually subject educational institutions to analyses and critique.

An unimaginable idea on October 16, 1953, when the worst evils of the time reverberated around the courtroom as he described, in his self-defense speech “History will absolve me,” how less than half of school-age children attended rural public schools, arriving “barefoot, half-naked and malnourished.” It was still only a fantasy when the military garrisons were recovered and converted into schools, or when, a year after Cuba announced that it would lead a campaign to eradicate illiteracy, he declared on December 22, 1961, before campaign volunteers, that four and a half centuries of ignorance had been defeated; all of whom responded in unison: Tell us what else we must do!

Fidel at an elementary school in Artemisa. Photo: Juvenal Balán

Although much still remained to be done to realize the dreams of the giant, a flame had been lit. Notebooks and lanterns, witnesses to the mass social movement, wouldn’t be enough to destroy the vestiges of neo-colonialism. A battle would be waged to achieve a sixth to ninth grade education for all; a network of institutions created, from kindergartens and special schools, to universities and research centers; teachers trained; special education plans developed; computing and educational television incorporated; education made free and universal; while leading a battle of ideas committed to improving education and advancement of youth, to cite just a few examples.

Fidel, like a parent who teaches and guides, told his children to “read” rather than “believe,” certain that the future of the country would depend on their knowledge alone. He gave ample advice about the need to find solutions to the problems of every era, and trust in the ability of others to carry forward what he described as “the most important task of the Revolution,” to educate children to love their work; grant the family and school their appropriate role in instilling morals and ethics; and taking education to all corners of the country and the world, as exemplified by the thousands of Cuban teachers currently offering services in over 30 countries across the globe.

And just like any good parent, he enjoyed the time-old tradition of sitting down to talk with his youngest children, who will always remember when on December 17, 2005, in the Aula Magna of the University of Havana, where he became a Marxist and revolutionary, he spoke again about the future of the nation. The pride in his eyes was palpable, as if his lesson had truly taken root: “…to educate is to prepare for life, understand its fundamental elements so that life is always something that makes sense to us humans, a constant reason to work, struggle, for enthusiasm.”

That’s how the light that was lit in the heart of this island on the dawn of January 1, 1959, went on to illuminate the faces of thousands of citizens who have learned to read and write, and today continues to shine in the country’s over 10,000 schools, where Cuban education has a name. And that name is Fidel!