“Now We Must Consolidate This Bolivarian Educational System”

An interview with Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz, one of the longer serving members of the Chavez cabinet. Isturiz talks about the government's educational philosophy, the tripling of investment in education, and how the educational "missions" fit into the overall program of educational policies.

Minister of Education and Sports Aritobulo Isturiz
Credit: G. Wilpert

Aristóbulo Isturiz is Venezuela’s Minister of Education and Sports. He is one of the longer-serving ministers in the Chavez cabinet, having been named to the post three and a half years ago. By profession he is a high school teacher and was one of the leaders of the party La Causa R (The Radical Cause), which was a party that had its roots in the union movement and struggled to forge a path that was independent of the governing party-dominated union federation, the CTV (Confederation of Venezuelan Workers). Isturiz was one of the first to break the monopoly of power that the two long-governing parties Acción Democrática and Copei had in Venezuela, when he was elected as mayor of Caracas. In 1997 Isturiz’s party split over whether to support Chavez’s candidacy for the presidency and Aristobulo Isturiz and several other leaders of La Causa R split from the party to form Patria Para Todos (PPT – Fatherland for all), which became a key party in Chavez’s governing coalition. Isturiz went on to become vice-president of the Constitutional Assembly in 1999 and in 2001 he ran unsuccessfully against Carlos Ortega for the post to lead the union federation CTV. Chavez then named him, in late 2001, as Minister of Education.

How would you distinguish the educational philosophy of the Bolivarian government from that of previous governments?

I believe that the heart of the problem is that the Venezuelan educational model has been responding to the demands, formation, and interests of the neoliberal model. Until now, they have been forming people who are deeply individualistic and competitive.  Additionally, in an educational structure that is profoundly elitist and exclusive.  There has been a marked tendency towards privatization and exclusion, as elements that have characterized the education model, as a result of the neoliberal policies.  This does not only happen in education.  I believe that education and healthcare are the most visible spheres, where the impact of neoliberalism over the society expresses itself in the tendency to privatize and in the tendency to exclude. This generated, or rather, it lowered the investment in education because education was considered to be an expense.  This caused the physical buildings of schools to deteriorate progressively, there was no education, they did not consider the claims, they stopped paying teachers, there were strikes everyday, conflicts, they lost morals, ethics, the vocation of service. There was a very real tendency of deterioration of public education. Even the teachers of public schools enrolled their children in private schools. Now the idea is to make a great advance in our concept of education from the formation of a primitive, individualist, and competitive being to the formation of a social and solidaristic being. This difference is essential.  The first thing President Chavez did was to take measures to halt this tendency. The measures, among others, were to prohibit that that one had to pay to enter a public school. He created Bolivarian schools. He created a program of school meals.  And he increased the percentage of the budget dedicated to education. If you look, before 2.8% of the GDP was designated for education and now we are above 7%. It is a progressive, sustained strong growth.  And this has allowed us to expand registration and enrollment.

With the millennium goals the were approved in 2000, the idea is that by 2015, we must universalize elementary education.  This year the United Nations did an evaluation and it says that they can probably affirm that Venezuela will meet this goal. If Venezuela continues in this rhythm of growth, that they have observed in the last four years, this goal will be achieved by 2007.  And 2005 is the year of eradication of illiteracy. 45% of the Venezuelan population is studying.  Therefore, there is an element that has to do with the vision with the conception of the world, the vision of the State.  While we were putting forth the idea, a limited concept of democracy, of representative democracy, of political democracy, without social content, the Bolivarian Revolution is putting forth the idea of the necessity of constructing a social democracy in order to give social content to democracy. When I speak of social democracy, it means to universalize the concept of rights. No only voting, electing, being elected, public freedoms, freedom of the press, all of which are extremely important and necessary freedoms, but they are not sufficient. They have to have access to the social rights:  education, healthcare, employment. Therefore, there is a very different vision, from a limited vision to a broad vision of democracy that includes social rights.  Without rights, there is no democracy. The Bolivarian State has two big functions. It must guarantee equality, guarantee for those who can not pay, the same rights as those who can pay. And the principle of shared responsibility, of co-responsibility. The State is not the government.  The State is the people and the government. It is society, family, and government.

What does co-responsibility mean?

Co-responsibility means that the State is not a paternalistic state, but instead that the people have duties as well as rights. It is necessary to take on the big job of creating this consciousness in people of their duties, in order that together they can have the capacity to resolve, not only to complain that they have problems but also that they have to participate in the solution and the search for the solution of the problem.  Due to this, the democracy that we are constructing is a participatory democracy.  In the Constitution, we have established mechanisms for this participation.  The referendum, for example, was a form in which the people had a protagonistic role in the solution of political problems. Some thought that it was the intervention of the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Charter and the intervention in Venezuela to intervene in Venezuela as an international organization or a multilateral organization–no, no.  Venezuela resolves its own problems. And Venezuela has mechanisms so that the source of the power is the people. The people exercise sovereignty. And sovereignty resides intransferably in the people. The people do not transfer their sovereignty.  In any moment, they can exercise this power.

How is this participation practiced in the realm of education?

The people have the right to participate in the planning, the executing, and in the evaluation of public policies. We are organizing the people to participate, and trying to support the training of the people.  The communities of education are a form of participation. The civil society organizations in the schools are a form of participation. The cooperatives of the schools are a form of participation for people. Participation is in the debate of the curriculum.  Participation in the solution of all of the problems that are occurring now:  the floods, the rain, the damages.  We are together with the people.  Yes the people form part of the state.  The missions are a form of participation.  We would not have been able to teach one million people to read and write if we had not had the help of 100,000 volunteers.  This is the people participating. The people offer their house, their car, a room in their house, a porch in their house for the mission.  These are forms of people participating in public affairs.

What remains to be done for the government to reach its goals in education?

Chávez took four essential measures in education:  the prohibition of charging for public schools, the creation of Bolivarian schools, the increase of the budget for education, and providing meals for children in schools.  Later, we started to design some strategic lines that permitted us to transform the educational system. We started a process of recuperation, of construction, of endowments, of school buildings, and we are in this process.  Up until now we have 8,700 buildings that we have recuperated and over 650 newly constructed schools. This is one strategic line.

Another line has to do with the change in curriculum. Another line has to do with the dignifying of the teaching staff, and the permanent and initial formation of the teaching staff.  The other line has to do with the incorporation of the technology of communication and information in education.

What are the new components of effectiveness? This will have a product, which is a social human being that lives in solidarity that knows how to think and do and live together. With this, this is the profile of the curricular products. This new change of curriculum impacts the structure of the educational system. It is a change is the structure of the system. Here is Venezuela, according to the law, pre-school is not obligatory. The new law is going to make it obligatory. We are teaching that pre-school is obligatory. Here elementary education is obligatory. Because for us, the pre-school education is fundamental. Because of the social gap, of poverty, the inequalities are expressed at home.  We in the school do not have the capacity to resolve socio-economic inequalities. But we do have the capacity, independently of the origin of the children, to make the conditions more equal before they enroll in first grade. The function that pre-school carries out is to guarantee the equality. When a child lacks basic necessities in his house, needs for affection, in cultural levels, she or he has up until the age of 6 to compensate for these needs.  Because if it is not done, it becomes a chronic problem in the child.  If she or he is malnourished, there is going to be a problem of intellectual limitations: mentally retarded, failure in school, repeating grades, etc.  If he has a lack of affection, and he gets to be 6 years old and they are not compensated for, they will become a chronic behavioral problem. There are many young people who are in jail for bad conduct and that has to do with the fact that they lacked affection that were not met when they were children. The other element, on a cultural level, is that there are inequalities from a cultural point of view. And these inequalities influence the language development of a child and in their personality.  We are making a space to make this more equal and the children live together, eat together in order to compensate for what they lack, with the love and the affection of the teachers and so they have a cultural environment where the music, the language, the games, the living together, will permit them to develop at a normal level their language skills. This is the most important stage of their lives.  It is a moment of socialization. of development the neural motor coordination and linguistic, that is very important in this stage.

We had some 650,000 children incorporated when we arrived. Now we are providing for 1,380,000 and we still have children outside of the system – in preschool, in all levels.  We have to continue to advance.  We have advanced and accomplished extraordinary things, but we have not solved the problem.  Preschool would not just be obligatory for those children who have money.  Now, preschool must be for everyone and not only pre-school but also elementary school. The preschool educational structure is what we have named “Simoncito”. This is the basic school. The Simoncito is pre-school.

What is the Bolivarian educational model?

The entrance level is this one, the Simoncito.  The youngest children. Afterwards, they go on to elementary education.  Elementary education is the Bolivarian school.  For us, it has two levels. The first and the second.  The first from 1st to 3rd, and the second from 4th to 6th. The Bolivarian school is all day. The teacher is exclusive. It has a kitchen.  The mothers take turns cooking, the mothers collaborate.  It is a school that has 9 characteristics.  It is a space for household chores for the community.  The school is a space for the community, the women get together, resolve problems, discuss problems, but at the same time it is a space for health and for life, for everything that has to do with health.  Everything has to go through the school.  It is a space for production and at the same time the children study, they must be capable of working with art, with crops, in the orchard, so that they go along facilitating the value of work.  It is a space for creativity and inventiveness, for music, literature, poetry, painting, and dance, etc.  It is a space for the innovation pedagogy so that the teacher has the liberty to be able to teach different didactic resources, new methodologies and strategies. 

It is a space for the innovation.  It is a space for going towards the democratization of information technologies.  They go along incorporating technology, strategies, methods, procedures.  The teacher is exclusive, she or he can not work in another place.  We give the teachers 70% more than their salary so that they are there all day and so that they don’t work in another place and so that they take care of the children. Not only giving them classes, but also sharing with the children. When they are playing sports, doing cultural things, making art, when they are having leisure time, the teacher must be like a friend, sharing with them. They have time to plan, they have a library in every classroom. Each classroom has its own library so that the children do not have to buy their school supplies themselves. The children eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the school. They eat there in the morning, then they eat lunch, then they eat before going home. This is a Bolivarian school.

When the children leave the Bolivarian school, they have two alternatives. They can go to the Bolivarian high school, or they can go to a technical school. Technical education or high school before the university.

The old version of school exists and the Bolivarian schools exist.  The old version of preschool exists and the Simoncitos exist. We are in a transition. What we have to do, the big challenge is to consolidate this system, to go along consolidating the system and universalizing it and advancing its development. The secondary school has changed. It is tacking the traditionally fragmented access to reality, by subject, by discipline, by course. And a child jumps from one teacher in 6th grade to 12 teachers separated by subject in 7th grade. We believe this is a mistake because reality is integrated, it is not separated or fragmented or cut into pieces.  Physics, math, biology, have to do with the other. Therefore, we are moving from the fragmentation of the courses to the construction of areas of knowledge for the integrality. 

What are some examples of these new areas?

Science is an area.  You can see a chemistry professor, a physical professor, a biology professor.  But it is an area.  It has to do with an area of knowledge.  Social sciences is an area. Health is an area.  We are going to move from the program to the project.  You elaborate an objective. And in this objective, you see the different contents upon looking for the solution to the project. Therefore, it is a move from program to project, from course to the construction of areas.  There is an environmental center, a center for valuing the environment, the ecology. The concept of endogenous development, development from within – it is necessary to be conscious of this. Therefore, they are creating a laboratory of endogenous development in order that the child that comes from primary education comes with love for his home, school, teacher, family. The child, playing in elementary education will come to value work as a liberating instrument.  We must give value to doing that. These changes are expressed in Simoncito, Bolivarian schools, Bolivarian high schools, and technical schools.  Here former President Caldera closed the technical schools. They were converted into high schools. Yes, they stopped forming technicians. We are taking control of these schools and reopening them. Reopening, getting them new equipment and modernizing them. Therefore, this forms the structure of the system:  Simoncito, Bolivarian schools, Bolivarian high schools, technical schools and in higher education, we are creating the Bolivarian University and small university villages.

The Bolivarian University is not just one more university.  It is a guide for higher education for giving the country a new model of superior education.  The small university villages are very important because they change the concept of higher education. Up until now, the university in Venezuela has been elitist. One has to go to where the university is. One has to choose a career that the university offers. The university did not have anything to do with the needs to the human resources of the regions, of the states of the municipalities. Because of this, the poor people can not go. They can not pay for a residence, etc. And afterwards, they have to choose a career that is offered. What is it that I need to order to develop myself if I am from a mining region?  No, the university does not have anything to do with me. Maybe I go to the university and I study law. But no even specializing in mining law, but instead penal law. Because that is what the university offers me. Now we have taken on the planning of the public policies.  In the Constitution we have created the Councils of public planning local, regional and at a state level that evaluate the potentials of the region, elaborate plans of regional development in agreement with each reality. Therefore, what is it that we are planning?  That in each municipality there must exist, not one university, but instead a higher educational space, with laboratories, with technology, with administrative areas, a space that is for higher education, in agreement with the plans for each region, the region says what professionals and what technicians it needs. The universities come and they give them an answer.  But the university goes to where the people are and not that the people go to where the university is. And that the university offers the courses of study that the locality is demanding.  This changes the concept of higher education. And it tends universalize higher education. 

What about the missions? How do they fit into the government’s overall education policy?

The missions are a system of social inclusion.  If we had achieved in perfecting the educational system of this model, this model that we call the Bolivarian model, if we achieve its perfection, we will be fulfilling the principle of a quality education for everyone. Otherwise the excluded would not have an education.  For many years, a social debt has been accumulated and we have millions of people who never in their life went to school because they are poor.  And there are many who went to school, to first grade, but did not even finish sixth grade, millions.  We have to enroll people in high school, who never finished fifth grade. And we have thousands of high school students who never could enroll in the university, being poor and for the lack of enrollment capacity.

Parallel to this effort to improve the educational system: Simoncito, Bolivarian schools, Bolivarian high schools, technical schools, and Bolivarian universities, we are designing a strategy that permits that we facilitate access to education for all of our excluded. And for this, the effort called the missions comes from.  We start off with the Mission Robinson.  Robinson 1 focuses on literacy.  We taught 1,371,000 people to read and write in a year and a half.  With TV, with VCR, with facilitators, with videos, primary books, with all of the support and everyone got involved from the President of the Republic to the most humble Venezuelan.  The Armed Forces with boats, lamps, with everything that you can imagine. Walking, carrying them to the hills.  We have translated this into the indigenous languages and also in Braille.  We taught all of the prisoners in the jails to read and write. There is not one illiterate person in jail.

But we have not finished.  Right now we have 1,372,000 people who now can read and write. Now we are going to graduate 30,000 more. We are going to have 1,400,000 and we have 50,000 who are learning to read and write. According to the census we had 1.5 million people who did not know how to read and write. The last survey said that it was 4% of the population. Afterwards, we recalculated the figure to over 8%.  As part of mission Robinson 2, we have 1,264,000 people who are studying up until 6th grade. We are going to have the first 6th grade graduation in October. 650,000 will finish 6th grade. In Mission Ribas, high school completion, we have more than 800,000.  These high school students are going to finish in April.

The problem is that there are people in the opposition, who are against the missions.  When they saw that the people rose up and defended the missions, they calmed down.  But at first they attacked the missions.  The Mission Robinson was attacked. They assaulted cars that were carrying materials to the missions.  Boats with TVs have been assaulted. The problem is that they were successful. The opposition does not believe that.  They denied it and said it was a lie. When you see the massive things, you can not deny them. It was broadcast in the TV, a woman with a blackboard, who said that she did not know how to read or write, I am 66 years old and now I am writing my name. And each one in order to graduate has to write a letter.  We register these letters in a lottery and we bind them in a book.  And they have to read a paragraph. We have the books notarized. 67% are women, 33% are men. 

All of this makes up what is called the Bolivarian Educational System. This is the new educational model. The structure of Simoncito, the Bolivarian school, the Bolivarian high schools, the technical schools, the Bolivarian University and the system of the missions.  This is a new system with a new philosophy, with new teaching methods, and a new scholastic model.  The job at hand now is the consolidation of this.

The Missions are part of the system? Sometimes people have the impression that this is a temporary thing.

No.  The missions have already been institutionalized.  And they form a subsystem within the system.  And they will stay.  I would eliminate the old adult education system substitute it with the missions. The difference with the missions is that it is a different strategy in which you use a TV, a VCR, a video, the facilitators to solidify the education. But it has all of the pedagogy, the supervisors. 

So the missions are going to incorporate the missions into the educational budget?

Yes, it is being incorporated within the budget.

Until now, it has not been incorporated.

Because it is a pilot program and now it is time to institutionalize it and incorporate it within the system.  Simoncito is a pilot.  Now we are incorporating it.  The Bolivarian schools are a pilot. We evaluated it and now we are incorporating it. The Bolivarian high schools are a pilot.  We have a Bolivarian high school in each state and 3 in Caracas. And we have 300 secondary schools in the country doing follow-up in order to make the leap. We have gone from 25 Bolivarian secondary schools to 350 in the country. We will also continue with the missions with adults, and incorporate them into the educational system. This is the strategy for attending the excluded. We are not going to be able to do this in 1 or 2 years. They have been excluded for too many years.

How would you respond to the accusation that the Bolivarian schools are an instrument for the ideological indoctrination of the population?

Whoever says this is stupid because the parents know.  In other words, we have 3,750 Bolivarian schools. That person is a liar.  I would not even know how to respond to him. We are approaching 4,000 schools. We are going to have 4,500 by the end of the year. There are over one million children who eat in Bolivarian schools.  Maybe they say it in countries outside of Venezuela and they believe it in these countries. But they don’t say it within Venezuela…certainly not a mother who has a child in a Bolivarian school.  Maybe it is successful in foreign countries. The people who say “Chávez is communist, Chávez is whatever, in Venezuela there is no freedom” and the people believe it.  Many people believe it, that there is a dictatorship in Venezuela. Now you go and you can see children using a computer. And never before in their lives had they navigated in the internet.  That is the revolution. We still have a long way to go.  It is out of spite, because they had all of theirs lives governing this country and they were not capable of doing it. It is necessary to recognize the Chávez has invested in the people and Chávez has put all of his love in his heart into this.  Well, they can say whatever they want about Chávez, but what they can not talk about are social policies. 

I have responsibility for two Millennium Goals for 2015,  and I myself say that by 2007, we can reach these goals. The illiteracy rate has been reduced by half. Look, all of Latin America had 38 million of people who did not know how to read and write in 2000. Now Latin America has 43 million.  Instead of decreasing, it increased. The world had 840 million of people who did not know how to read and write in 2000. Now the world has 900 million. In 2000, Venezuela had 1.5 million.  In March we are going to have 1.4 million who know how to read and write who were illiterate before. We are going to fulfill the goals.  And this has to do with the policies of the state. It has to do with the budget.  When you want to see if a government has social orientation, look at the budget. Last year, in 2004, we had 20% of the budget for education. 20%.  One fifth of the budget of this country for education.

Article 9 of the Law of Equal Opportunity for Women says that the Education Ministry must incorporate new teaching methods at the pre-school level, so as to modify the socio-cultural patterns of male and female conduct, to eliminate the prejudices and sexist practices; in order to promote the diversification of options and to stimulate mixed education in order to eliminate traditional stereotypes. In what do the new teaching methods consist of and to what extent have these been implemented?

The concept of gender is in the curriculum from preschool onwards.  From an educational point of view Venezuela is one of the countries that practically has educational equality.  Here more women than men have a university education.

In the missions it is 50-50.  Notice that in Robinson we have a chart, the one that I just spoke to you about, where I pointed out to you that out of the entire population of people who have learned to read and write, 67% are women and 33% are men.  Women have been hopelessly trapped in a vicious circle, and therefore it is necessary to favor women. In Robinson II it is the same.  In Mission Ribas also.  Also in Mission Sucre.  When you look at the facilitators, 60% or 59% are women, while only 41% or 42% are men.  In terms of facilitators, there are more women than men, in terms of students of the missions, there are more women than men, in preschool there are more girls than boys, in elementary school it is same. 

Of course, in the curriculum there are expressions and contents and activities that are designed to cultivate a sense of gender. These exist in terms of participation, the discussions, in the debates, in the organs of organization, in the communities that educate, in the student organizations, the participation of women is obligatory. Sexuality and gender is a component of preschool. From preschool onwards.

Why are they using Cuban methodology for literacy instead of the one developed by Paolo Freire?

The Cuban method incorporates part of the Paolo Freire methodology. The Cuban methodology has received five awards from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Also, the Cuban method has been used in many countries.  It has three successive awards from UNESCO.  The method Yo sí puedo, we have incorporated it, we have “Venezuelanized” it. 

In what sense?

For example, when we incorporated Yo sí puedo in Braille, this is a Venezuelan incorporation. The translation that we have done in Indigenous languages, this is Venezuelan. The Cuban method is very simple.  It is based, notice this, on the principle of going from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the easy to the difficult, the people use the principle of association of the familiar with the unfamiliar.  This is the pedagogical key to the Cuban method. It uses numbers and letters and associates the numbers with the letters.  Every adult is familiar with numbers. Like that they will learn to read. They don’t know how to read but they know how to gamble. They don’t know how to read but they play the lottery. An adult is familiar with numbers. An adult, in addition to not knowing the letters and knowing the numbers, has life experience. Because of this, an adult learns faster.  They are pedagogical principles.  If you teach an adult to learn, there are many things that you don’t have to teach an adult that you have to teach a child, like how to live. An adult knows a lot of things, he is familiar with many things and therefore, he knows how to read.  Due to this, the speed with which an adult studies is not the same as children.  A child needs six years because their personality is developing and they are developing as a person. They must live, they must mature. An adult has already gone through this development. Due to this, an adult can learn to read and write in two years. They can complete sixth grade. We did not come up with this idea.  This is what they did before in the system. 

People say “it is a Cuban method”.  Ok, but 1.4 million people learned in 1.5 years. This is the product, the reality. And they are not reading Cuban, they are reading Spanish or their Indigenous language. They can not deny this.

Do we have the problem solved?  No, but we are on the way.  There are a lot of problems. I would like to have all of the Bolivarian schools. No, but we have around 3,780. I would like to have all of the Simoncitos. I would like that all of the technical schools – the 80 that we are constructing – are like the 200 that we have. It is an effort.   I would like to have all 20,000 schools refurbished.  Now we have 8,750.  I would like to build 5,000 new school buildings.  Now we are constructing 700.  But it is a great investment. This is the direction, the path, that we must follow. Deepen and accelerate this path is the job at hand. Now we have the design of the education model. You saw it, there is a change. Now we must consolidate this Bolivarian educational system and expand it and deepen it.