'Socialist' education? Venezuela's Education Reforms in Context

chavez signing education law

The National Assembly of Venezuela passed an education reform bill on Friday, August 14, after midnight, effectively overhauling the educational system of the country. Like every affair in Venezuela, this one is extremely partisan and misinformed. What is seen on the right as a “communist country project”1 is seen on the left as a guarantee of “a free, accessible, liberatory, and secular education that definitively guarantees teacher stability and autonomy.”2 I have not been involved in formulating educational policy, although education is in my future. While the bill itself is getting lost admist the politics and denunciations in the media, the country’s right to amend itself, with or without the absent opposition who boycotted in 2005, is not something any people should discourage (although, especially in the US media, this is bound to happen).

Venezuela followed much of Latin America before 1999 when Hugo Chavez was elected to the presidency. In the 1960s and 1970s, Latin America, despite the military coups and internal wars, attempted to consolidate its hold on power through “popular” resolutions such as appeals to national unity, integration of immigrants and Indian populations. As the debt crisis of the 1980s gripped much of the continent, neoliberal measures were imposed in order to shore up debt from the IMF and World Bank such as severe budget cuts for schools; tuition fees and “user fees;” greater autonomy for private schools; and decentralization of labor force, which led to many teachers being stripped of their civil service status, making them easier to terminate. The aim was on efficiency for the new globalized age with an emphasis on vocation.

Of course, there were many problems. The main one being revenue. As the states cut schools budgets, it was up to the municipal governments to find and provide aid. This led to a disparity between the urban (well-funded) and rural (under-funded) educational experience. As a result, the income and literacy gaps widened along with the ever present ethnic and linguistic divides that traditionally wedged urban and rural worlds. Children were dropping out of school, illteracy was rising. As John Scott points of for Mexico, the richest 10 percent spent an average of 12 years in school while the poorest 10 percent spent just two years. This led to a general feeling exemplified by a woman in Chile, who said, “Why should my kids read Neruda or go to theater if they’re just going to end up picking organges?” The lack of decent jobs and opportunities, as well as the poverty which led to families to employ their young children to labor to put food on their tables, enforced a spiraling isolation between those who saw education as an advancement and others who saw it as a waste of time (and often, due to “user fees,” money).

Important when thinking about Venezuela: during this time, universities came into their own. In the 1970s, Latin America’s extreme inequality gaps can be traced to access to private (and sometimes public) universities. As John Ward writes, the continent suffered “disproportinate, lavishly funded expansion of university education, undertaken in response to pressure from higher income groups, and mainly for their benefit” (115). By the 1980s, universities came to take 40 percent of state funding, while only serving small slices of the country as a whole.

The role of the church cannot be negated although its power has waned immensly since before 1900. Yet, the Catholic Church enjoys privleges under the current law that it has vowed to not give up.1 Jeremy Morgan, covering the passage of the bill for the Latin American Herald Tribune states that “Venezuela’s population, at least nominally, is 98 percent Catholic.”2 Of course, this does not mean anything as the power of the church (as well as attendence on any given Sunday) is not even close to that range.3 The Church acts as cultural marker, something that speaks to (especially for elites) their Spanish past – more historical to some than relevant. Because of the role of Catholic schools and universities, they enter into a debate that often they wouldn’t often be consulted for.

The drama began around August 7 when the National Assembly shelved a Media Crimes Bill in favor of debating an education bill on the agenda. The bill was introduced by National Assembly President Cilia Flores and was approved by the majority PSUV (United Socialist Part of Venezuela). They agreed to hold a second debate the next week.

This is when problems arose. One was the unusually short debate, although passage seemed inevitable due to the opposition forces abstaining from the Assembly following a walk-out in 2005. Cecilia García Arocha, Principal of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), called for actions against the law as it was and called upon educators and others to put in changes that were not discussed. Luis Ugalde, president of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, and Sol de Santos, head of the Education Institutions Association in Aragua state emphasized the importance of education and demanded thorough debate. Enrique Planchart, Principal of the Universidad Simón Bolívar, said the legislation should not be discussed “behind the public’s back.” Their views are legitimate, even when conceeding their vision of education is opposite of the spirit of the bill itself. With such a majority, would it matter to spend time on the bill? Prudence and thoughtful debate are always quality assets. These do not have to mean, as it has come to in the United States, that PSUV or Chavez needs to placate the opposition and cave into all demands. Listening hurts no one.

Yet, as passage loomed, people took to the streets (and even blockaded roads in Carabobo). Opponents felt the law was unconstitutional, that it violated Article 59 of the Constitution. Like in United States with health care, the right in Venezuela invent (and never face intellectual battle) clauses and conclusions from legislation. The mouthpiece of the right, VenEconomy, in the Latin American Hearld Tribune, conceeds its own ignorance but, like cries of “socialism” in the States, cannot help itself:

The bill is so complicated and difficult to understand that it would be impossible to explain it in full here. However, as is customary for the redder-than-red National Assembly, the bill it is pushing through is marred by a number of unconstitutional elements.

chavez protests education law

With this crack evidence, the people went to streets. In order to prevent the merging of supporters and opponents of the bill, the police dispersed tear gas and water cannons. Journalists claimed intimidation, peaceful students were tear gased who had respitory problems, and a general outcry rose against chavistas, meaning poor people coming to now steal their education from them. This divide is essential, as the government acknowledged the elite nature of the educational system. “Not for the first time,” Jeremy Morgan writes, “Chavez has evoked class issues in support of his cause.” It is the fantasy of the right to have “class” and “race” struck from the record, but this cannot be so. That several leaders of the National Workers Union (UNETE), Venezuela’s largest labor union confederation, praised the law for expanding protections for teachers as well as laborers in educational institutions, and for establishing more democratic university admissions policies, will not help the right. In fact, the conservative Assembly of Education is preparing booklets on how to resist the government.

So what’s wrong? It is not just the lack of debate that has provoked the populace. What does this law say about indoctrination? About stealing children from ages 2 to 20 into socialist camps? Of the destruction of autonomy for the universities? Surprsingly – or not surprisingly – nothing.

Article 5, of which so many are upset with, has a list of pretty standard clauses. Like the right to a full education for all, gender equality, etc; free education in all government institutions; linguistic equality with Indian population with equal access to Castilian (Spanish); equal working conditions. And like the US, Venezuelans are expected to honor and respect national symbols, like Simón Bolívar. It re-emphasizes complusry education, vows to operate the new system under participatory democratic guise, territorializes the university systems, much like the US, “with relevance to cultural values, local capacities and potentials within the strategy of social inclusion. It promotes an exchange of cultures and practices – in short, opening the educational system to the entire variety of Venezuelan culture, not just elite culture.

Article 6, of which the Church does not agree, is the commitment to secular education. The Church is still trying to convince people it’s “very important” to them, although it is not. Article 7 articulates gender equality.

Article 13 purposes the “purposes of education.” In short: to develop the creative potential of all human beings, to cultivate a new political culture based on participation and a strengthening of popular power, to form a “geohistorical” awareness of the nation (maybe more on this later…), develop ecological awareness and to promote Latin American integration and unity. Of course, no mention of “Cuba” or whatever is supposed to scare us. In fact, Cuba could provide an alternative, but their case has been made elsewhere.

The most important article, Number 16, will just be translated in whole, for you to decide:

Article 16. The commune councils and other social organizations in the community, power and its People an agent of education, are required to contribute: a) training of citizens and Citizen b) formation and strengthening of ethical values, c) information and dissemination of the historical, geographical, cultural, environmental, conservation and socio-economic area, d) integration Family-School-Community e) the promotion and defense of education, culture, sports, recreation, work, health and other rights, guarantees and duties of Venezuela and the Venezuelans, having a liberating educational role for the formation of a new citizenship and construction subject of social transformation.

Quickly, other amendements of note include.

Article 25: enshrines bilingual education.

Article 28: responsible for military education and thought “based and the precursors, emancipated heroines, heroes Venezuelans, particularly those of The Liberator Simón Bolívar, Manuela Saenz, Simón Rodríguez, the matte black, Guaicaipuro, Josefa Camejo, José Leonardo Chirino, Ezequiel Zamora, among others,” and to be administered “in coordination with governing bodies and university education.”

Article 32: unlike the press reports, upholds university autonomy and free speech. Article 34: upholds academic freedom “understood as an inalienable right to create, expose or methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives, according to the principles established in the Constitution and the law.” Article 35: teacher training through governing bodies. Article 39: guarantees teacher stability. Article 46: one’s studies at a foreign institution will be valid in Venezuela (so if the elite send their children to the US, their degrees will work…).

In reality, the school have always been under some degree of state supervision. But, again, like United States with health care, the reports from the press boil down to statements like, that’s “the opposite of what the critics are saying,” instead of “here’s the truth.” My analysis of the new education law is lacking, it is missing things, but it is only a first step. As I have seen nothing, this is a better place to start than not. I have my own opinions, but I believe I’ve made them clear in the past. Like in Honduras, attempting to include more people and provide education is no sin – this will not solve the problems, but the elite and out-of-reach institutions have failed Venezuela. It’s time for something different.

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~ by Daniel on August 17, 2009.

One Response to “'Socialist' education? Venezuela's Education Reforms in Context”

  1. It is indeed time for something different – unfortunately these elite and out-of-reach institutions are everywhere. Until we stand united as people nothing will change …

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