On October 22 and 23, a section of Venezuela’s education workers went on strike to demand higher wages and better work conditions. They also demanded respect for collective bargaining, greater benefits and public investment, as well as the resignation of Education Minister Aristobulo Isturiz.
The strike was called by the Trade Union Coalition for Education, which brings together a number of educational unions from primary to university level. It followed a 24-hour strike earlier this month. Unions affiliated to the left-leaning Bolivarian Socialist Confederation of Workers (CBST) and National Struggle Front of the Working Class (FNLCT) did not support the strike, while right-wing unions, such as the Federation of University Professors’ Associations (FAPUV), played a prominent role.
The strike came on the back of a general 275 percent salary increase announced on October 14, which upped the minimum wage to around US $7.5 a month ($15 for active workers who receive food tickets). Nonetheless, some union leaders organising the strike called for teacher’s wages to be increased further to US $600.
On October 23, self-declared “Interim President” Juan Guaido sent a video-message of support to the striking teachers, claiming to be “with them.” For his part, President Nicolas Maduro claimed that the stoppage “crashed out.”
Following the strike, meetings between unions and the ministry have taken place, with teachers floating a further 72-hour strike before Christmas. The following is an interview conducted by Merida-based community outlet TatuyTV with one of the teachers who took part in the strike.
Tatuy Tv spoke with Aurathais Marin, a primary school teacher, about the complex situation that teachers in Venezuela are living through, as well as the recent strike action that the sector has undertaken to denounce the precarious conditions of teachers.
How is a teacher’s life in Venezuela?
In these times, those of us who teach really do so out of vocation and love for the profession. I can tell you that most teachers are opposition supporters, but they love what they do. Any teacher who is in the classroom right now is there because they love their students, their profession, those beautiful children who are really the ones who make one's life happy.
But it's very difficult. Teachers don't even have enough income to cover their bus tickets or to feed themselves. In this reality we work out of love, out of vocation, with a lot of dedication, but not for anything else.
What is the situation like for students and their families?
Horrible, it's horrible, because in the city all the families are disintegrated: either their father, mother, or siblings are abroad. The children are emotionally affected.
The low diet quality is also amazing. The schools only receive rice and pasta [from the national system of school meals]. Children have extremely poor diets, and there are many who do not eat at home, so they eat at school, but if what comes is simply rice for example… and the portions served can only be small. This is what we live through on a daily basis.
All these factors lower the educational quality, lower the emotional level of the children, lower their academic level, as well as lowering their cognitive development. All this is seen in the classroom right now and yes, the task of the teacher is much more arduous, much more uphill [than before].
How are teachers’ difficult working conditions affecting education in Venezuela?
Student enrolment has dropped a lot, it is a lie that levels of school participation have remained stable.
When I started working at this school, about two or three years ago, we had 750 students enrolled, and today there are 217. It is alarming how much enrolment, as well as the number of teachers available, have gone down.
Those teachers who have stayed on go to work discouraged, they continue working for love of their students, but it is not the same. They are discouraged because they have no financial incentive and that is very important for a professional after training for so many years, working and gaining experience. You cannot live a dignified life.
Who is responsible for the precarious situation of teachers in Venezuela?
There is a national situation, and the state has committed mistakes within that situation.
We are clear that there is a [US-led international] blockade and coercive measures [sanctions], that we are threatened [by external military action], that there is an economic war, that imperialism is attacking us. Yes, all of that is true.
However, it is also true that there have been no policies from the Education Ministry to protect teachers, or educational workers in general. Here I include the [non-classroom based] workers and the administrative staff, who are going through the same situation.
Everyone in Venezuela is going through a difficult situation right now, that is clear, not only the teachers, all the trades, all the professionals, the people in general. But one expects the ministry to take stronger action, and this has not been the case.
We are in a very difficult system, I do not want to hold a single person, group of people, or the government singularly responsible, but the current Minister Aristobulo Isturiz has made things worse instead of fighting for better conditions for teachers. In fact, Aristobulo's attitude as a minister has, in my opinion, been pathetic. When Elias Jaua was minister [from 2017 to 2018], there were more comprehensive efforts to improve workplace conditions for teachers.
What has been the position of the national government concerning the needs of teachers?
I think that the position of the government regarding teachers has been the same as the stance that it maintains in the face of the general situation of the country. There is a discourse of wanting to cover things up: “Quiet, everything will be OK, we will solve things. This time it’s for real.”
But it has actually been a lie... I don't know who negotiations (1) will be with, let's be clear, there's always a negotiation in the middle of things. But I'm telling you, it's not in favour of the people. Teachers are part of the people (el pueblo) too.
Why do you consider it important to take collective action such as the October 22 strike?
It is important to make [these issues] known, that your voice is heard. The voice is of all the people who work together to push a country forward, and education is fundamental, all levels of education.
But primary education is vital, they are our children. They are not products, they are children who are forming, the citizens of the future. If we don't have teachers who are happy, who can support their families, that is, purchase the basics which in principle bring happiness ̶ give families a good diet and basic needs, shoes or clothes ̶ then what are we doing? Currently, even these basic needs are not met.
We understand the difficulties we face as a country, but it is hard to keep quiet for so long. It is important that, beyond the [political macro] philosophies that are discussed, the collective voice is united on the basis of very important common objectives, and that we fight for those objectives. This gives strength and growth to the country. The real growth is to be able to face challenges in a political way, via a collective struggle.
Should teachers go on strike if they are committed Chavistas?
I don't judge anyone for being a Chavista or not. My position has been left-wing since I was a child and when I started voting I did so for [Hugo] Chavez. Before, I was very young, and likewise I did not identify with the Fourth Republic (2).
When Chavez appeared on the scene, that was the context in which one began to wake up and say: ‘Yes, I'm going to vote for this man, I'm going to vote for all his ideals’ and use the slogan ‘Homeland or Death’ (Patria o Muerte).
But right now it's not like that, everything Chavez wanted has disappeared. So I think I'm still a Chavista, but I participated in the strike because the reality is something else. This is not what Chavez wanted, this was not what he wanted for his people.
How is the working class revolutionary struggle different from attempts at right wing street violence / guarimbas or pressure from counter-revolutionary unions and guilds?
The difference is that you don't try to hurt anyone, that's a key difference.
The strike action that is taken is action within the democratic framework. The guarimbas (3) only sought destruction, and they destroyed ecosystems, people, and infrastructure. On top of that they were funded by criminals, murderers, thieves, all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the revolutionary struggle.
When there is an ideal, you can say that there is a struggle and there is no vandalism involved, so far there has been none [in the strike process]. There is always the danger that some career politicians on one side or another will take up the flag of the struggle for themselves and try to manipulate it, I think that's the delicate thing about it, but it also doesn't remove the fact that there's a real reason to struggle.
What else should the revolutionary working class do in order to achieve a better working conditions?
With this crisis I don’t know what else can be done. I really don't know, there isn’t much hope in the air.
What message would you send to teachers who, like you, are left-wing, revolutionary and Chavista, but should stop being afraid and start defending their workplace conditions?
Well, the message is to always delve into the reasons why we chose this profession, why we are on this path. They should always have that very clear and have it as a banner. Despite the fact that wage demands are necessary within the struggle, it shouldn’t be always diverted towards monetary aspects.
They shouldn’t lose sight of the ideal of being an educator, of what education means. My message would be to continue to love this profession and to keep struggling, to carry both elements together.
(1) At the time of the interview, the government of Nicolas Maduro was engaged in a series of negotiations with opposition sectors. Firstly, it entered rounds of dialogue with the radical opposition led by Juan Guaido with the moderation of Norway. This dialogue later broke down following the unveiling of a US general embargo and Guaido ruling out further talks, with the topics for dialogue not made public. Later, the government successfully set up a workgroup with factions of the centre-right opposition, which didn’t include Guaido, centred around renovating electoral authorities and guarantees, the reactivation of the National Assembly, bypassing the international embargo and the status of imprisoned opposition activists.
(2) The Fourth Republic is the period in Venezuelan history previous to 1999, when Hugo Chavez assumed the presidency and broke with decades of dual-party power sharing between mainstream parties Democratic Action and COPEI.
(3) The “guarimbas” refer to the 2014 and 2017 right-wing attempts to oust the elected Maduro government through violent street protests, which included barricades, targeted assassinations and firebombs combined with marches and protests. Over 40 citizens died in the 2014 guarimbas and 120 in 2017.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.
Translation and introduction by Paul Dobson for Venezuelanalysis.