MOST VENEZUELAN schools are now empty of children and teachers, in a major crisis for the poverty-stricken country.
Former President Hugo Chavez used to boast that he was improving the education system, but his policies have had the opposite effect. The almost total collapse of the Venezuelan economy – caused not by economic sanctions but by nationalisations, expropriations, price and currency controls, hyperinflation, mismanagement of the oil industry and abandonment of the rule of law – has ravaged the education sector.
The schools have been getting worse year by year. By 2016 about a quarter of Venezuelan school-age children were not enrolled. A study by Venezuelan universities at the beginning of 2018 revealed that out of Venezuela’s 8 million schoolchildren, some 3 million were absent. Fe y Alegría, a movement that provides free education in over 170 schools across Venezuela, reported a drop in student numbers of over 50 per cent compared to 2017. As the economic crisis deepens, education is being affected more and more.
When the school term started this September, very few children came to school. In the poor community of Caucagua some 75 kilometres from Caracas, only three students arrived at the Miguel Acevedo public primary school out of 65 students registered. In the first week of classes, the turnout rate across the country was only 15-20 per cent, the lowest in the previous century.
There are a number of inter-related factors in the collapse of the school system. One is the absence of many teachers, who are not being paid, or receiving enough to live on. “With my last pay check, I was able to buy a kilo of meat and a kilo of sugar,” said Roxi Gallardo, a 35-year-old teacher in the city of San Cristobal who, like many other teachers, is looking to leave Venezuela. The Venezuelan Association of Catholic Education reports that 3,500 of its teachers have quit their jobs, either to leave the country or to engage in informal work.
Another factor is that due to hyperinflation, basic items such as books, pencils and school uniforms are completely unaffordable. More importantly, many children came to school to receive free school meals. However, these are now rarely provided, and even then they are too small and lacking in protein to bother with. As the public transport system has collapsed, getting to school is much more difficult for children and teachers alike. Walking a considerable distance to school is difficult for children who are already under-nourished.
Children have been reported to become dizzy or faint because of lack of food. How can they learn when they cannot eat? “We were singing the national anthem and I felt nauseous. I’d only eaten an arepa (a local cornbread) that day, and I fainted,” reported Juliani Caceres, an 11-year-old student in Tachira state.
“Hungry people aren’t able to teach or learn,” said trade union leader Victor Venegas, president of the Barinas chapter of the national Federation of Education Workers. “We’re going to end up with a nation of illiterates.”
That Chavez made any improvements to education is largely a myth. The adult literacy rate was already 93 per cent when he came to power, after decades of work by previous governments. Chavez sought to politicise the school system by turning it into a vehicle for his propaganda. Even Maths textbooks were turned into propaganda tools. Today’s absent schoolchildren will be spared the indoctrination, but the downside is that they are not being educated at all. Despite having the largest oil reserves in the world and having once been South America’s richest country, literacy rates risk a return to levels last seen in the 1920s.
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