NYT Obituary: Armando Hart, Who Revolutionized Cuban Schools, Dies at 87

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An obituary by Sam Roberts for the New York Times.

Armando Hart, who as Fidel Castro’s confidant and first education minister redeemed the Cuban revolution’s vow of universal literacy, died on Sunday in Havana. He was 87.

The cause was respiratory failure, the Cuban Communist Party said.

Mr. Hart, a lawyer whose grandfather was born in the United States and immigrated to Cuba, was also, later, his country’s first culture minister.

An early member of Castro’s inner circle, Mr. Hart had played an integral role in the government for more than five decades since 1959, when revolutionaries toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which the United States supported. Mr. Hart was also responsible for recruitment and promotions in Cuba’s Communist Party.

Named education minister by the provisional president, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, immediately after the revolution, Mr. Hart served until 1965. He was credited with recruiting as many as 100,000 student volunteers to help slash Cuba’s illiteracy rate in a single year, to less than 5 percent from about 25 percent.

His ministry also purged dissident teachers, refused the request of Roman Catholic Church officials to allow religious instruction in public schools and required university students to learn a trade or skill. By the end of the decade, primary school education was available almost universally.

Mr. Hart served on the Council of State until 2008 and was a member of the parliament when he died.

He wrote several books; directed the government’s José Martí cultural program, dedicated to the 19th-century Cuban poet and revolutionary hero; and was the president of the José Martí Cultural Society. In 2010 he was awarded the Order of José Martí, the Council of State’s highest honor.

Mr. Hart was less doctrinaire than some of his Communist colleagues. He counseled an arm’s-length relationship with the Soviet Union, but, early on, also voiced support for armed insurrections against Latin American dictatorships supported by the United States.

After Castro jailed a dissident poet, Mr. Hart sought to reconcile with Cuba’s intellectuals by creating a culture ministry. Heading the ministry from its inception in 1976 until 1997, he allowed for creativity but also viewed culture through a political prism.

Early in his tenure, making an overture of sorts to American television executives who were visiting a jazz festival in Havana, Mr. Hart told them: “If you send us bombs, we will send you bombs. If you send us music, we will send you music.”

While he reminded the Writers’ Union of José Martí’s dictum “Justice first, art later,” he proclaimed shortly after his cultural ministry was established, “Justice has triumphed, forward with art.”

Armando Hart Davalos was born in Havana on June 13, 1930. His American-born grandfather went to Cuba from Georgia as a child. His father, also named Armando, was a Cuban court of appeals judge.

Mr. Hart earned a doctorate in law from the University of Havana in 1952. That same year his activism was sparked when Batista, while running for president, staged a coup.

Mr. Hart was a founder of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, named for the failed attack on an army barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953. He served as its national coordinator until he was jailed for suspected terrorism. Rescued from prison, he was recaptured in 1958 and remained in custody for months until the revolution.

His younger brother died in 1958 when, according to the authorities, a bomb he was making exploded prematurely.

By then, the Hart family was prominent enough that after the younger Armando was arrested, a United States agent checked on his well-being with officials of the Batista government, according to Thomas G. Paterson’s book “Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution” (1994).

“Through this concern,” Mr. Paterson wrote, “the C.I.A. agent probably saved Hart’s life — at least Castro thought so.”

Haydee Santamaria, Mr. Hart’s wife and a heroine of the revolution, was quoted at the time as saying that she hoped some day to present the American agent with a bouquet.

There was no immediate information on Mr. Hart’s survivors. His wife committed suicide in 1980, and their children, Celia and Abel, were killed in a car accident in Havana in 2008.

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