‘Morals and illumination are our primary necessities.’ Simón Bolívar’s famous phrase is written in large metal letters outside the entrance to Republic of Bolivia, a ‘Bolivarian’ school in west Caracas. Inside, the educational revolution is underway.
Due to a previous educational reform, this school boasts spacious and well-maintained buildings. The latest reform allows nearly 1,000 primary school students to have free breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack – a regime intended to help poor families care for their children.
Clearly, morals and illumination alone won’t be enough to create a Bolivarian future out of today’s social quagmire. Just ask Alis Torres, a social worker and member of a team that has conducted an Integral Health study at Republic of Bolivia School. ‘Violence affects emotional health,’ he says. ‘Kids don’t want to go to school, they are aggressive towards teachers. I can’t evaluate a poor child the same way I’d evaluate one that has everything.’
Justiniana Calatrava, a counsellor at the school, says that children suffer from poor self-esteem. ‘It leads to lack of interest in school and a lack of self-knowledge,’ she says. ‘Children think “I’m no good”. The children’s homes are also [frequently] violent. The kids at this school often live in residencias, where you find prostitution and other ills.’
It’s a bleak picture which contrasts sharply with the educational vision of the Bolivarian schools. But Vianney Hernandez, of the Caracas Bolivarian Schools Division, thinks things are turning around for the kids. She claims as evidence a decline in drop-out rates and an increase in the take-up of school meals, with parents more incorporated into school life.
Yet some of the teachers at Republic of Bolivia aren’t so impressed. ‘I expected improvement,’ says Atilio Roso, a music teacher. ‘A greater quantity of students eats, but the quality [of education] hasn’t changed.’
‘Parents benefit by having their kids taken care of,’ says preschool teacher Magaly Aguilar. ‘The kids also benefit from the meals. Other than that, I don’t think a lot has changed.’ Although she isn’t the only unenthusiastic teacher at Republic of Bolivia, Aguilar recognizes the school’s more child-centred approach. For Vianney Hernandez, classes at such schools are adapted to the needs and interests of the students themselves. They have a voice, in keeping with the participatory ideals of ‘the process’.
Despite Atilio Roso’s disappointment, he is satisfied with the increased participation of students. Much of this is designed to encourage patriotism, which in turn is meant to create citizens who will defend the patria (homeland) from whatever may aggrieve it. ‘Students forgot the national anthem,’ says Hernandez, ‘so there was no respect for this symbol of the homeland, which should make us proud. Every day we try to strengthen these values and principles.’
The goal, says Hernandez, is to ‘create better citizens’. This means ‘a human being who participates, has [social] concerns, is not indifferent, and is in solidarity’ with the rest of Venezuelan society.
So what might the future look like? Roger Sivira is nine years old, a fourth-grader who studies at Republic of Bolivia. Both his parents work at Miraflores, the presidential palace. Roger has been marked by Venezuela’s political upheaval. ‘During the  coup, my dad was downtown during the shooting,’ he explains. ‘I got scared and my mom cried from worry.’
Thanks largely to his parents’ influence, Roger has absorbed the lessons of patriotism well – so well that, short of becoming President himself, he’d like to be a soldier when he grows up.
‘There’s nothing ugly about defending a people,’ he insists when asked about the ugliness of weapons. ‘I want to be a soldier in order to defend the homeland.’
Roger is aware of the need to question institutions. A budding revolutionary, he relates an anecdote about a comrade at another school who raised a rebel voice. ‘A boy was yelling: “This school is no good! There’s no education!” He really supported the people. I’m sure that he’s now at a Bolivarian school.’
Echoing Bolívar, Roger believes that education is what a child needs most. It helps children to become good citizens. ‘A good citizen knows who does good and who does bad,’ he says. ‘At least, I know who does good and who does bad. Bush does bad and Chávez does good. The US wants to conquer the world, they want to be on top.’
Still in diapers
Bolivarian schools might well succeed in creating more Rogers – but where does that leave ‘illumination’? The schools are still in diapers themselves. Yet, if the views of Vianney Hernandez are anything to go by, patriotism has already become their most sacred value. He denies any suggestion that a child born into a family of doctors enjoys a particular advantage in becoming a doctor. It’s an argument any leftist academic would recognize.
‘No, I don’t buy it,’ says Hernandez. ‘A poor child is at no disadvantage. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t have as good a chance as anyone else.’
If denying the problem means denying the remedy, then the Bolivarian future promises to produce moral soldiers willing to defend the homeland, but who lack the illumination to do so effectively.
Today’s adults, however, do tend to be a lot smarter – largely as a result of the adult educational ‘missions’. Misión Robinson has taught many thousands to read, while Misión Ribas is helping people to achieve their high-school equivalency.
‘An ignorant people is the blind instrument of its own destruction.’ The words of Simón Rodríguez – the young Bolívar’s tutor, who at one point adopted the name Samuel Robinson, after the book Robinson Crusoe – are written inside Carmen Maiza School in El Valle parish. They set the tone for Bolivarian adult education.
Many of the students at Maiza are middle-aged parents who work during the day and devote a couple hours every weekday evening to study.
‘I have to provide an example to my children, who didn’t study,’ says Bertilda Figueroa, a Misión Robinson student who left school at the age of 10 in order to help her mother make paper bags at home. ‘My kids want to register for Misión Ribas when I do. There’s a collective enthusiasm in my house.’
Like many of her peers, Alba Valera wants ‘to be somebody’. Figueroa and Valera both dream of becoming nurses. Their dream seems more feasible now. So much has changed in the way these women – mothers, wives, slum dwellers, chavistas – see themselves and their futures.
‘I’ve learned to evaluate myself, to value myself,’ says Figueroa. ‘I never imagined expressing ourselves this way, to talk to a journalist about how we feel, to express how I feel about what we are going through.’
See for yourself
‘I’ll defend this revolution with cape and sword,’ says Valera, citing an old Venezuelan expression. ‘In the past, they didn’t want the poor to know what was going on. By learning, we can defend ourselves.’
‘I owe this change to the mission,’ asserts Figueroa.
Mision Ribas student Eleonora Dewilliams comes over to us. ‘I had a lot of doubts at the beginning,’ she says. ‘So I wanted to come and see for myself.’ What she found made her a revolutionary. ‘People who were disoriented have found direction. They have seen the light at the end of the tunnel.’
Mirna Velasquez is also very happy she found this mission: ‘I feel that I’ve advanced intellectually. The Venezuelan people have awakened. Other governments never explained anything to us, they had us blindfolded.’
Even the most dedicated oppositionists acknowledge the need for the missions. It is quite clear, however, that they also serve as instruments of political propaganda. Many classes devote a day a week to a ‘citizenship training’ – anything but politically neutral – where facilitators are expected to uphold the party line.
For a pittance, Raymond Romero takes time away from his wife and children because he believes in what he’s doing. He heads the Misión Ribas at Carmen Maiza.
‘I think the political focus should be eliminated, so it’s purely educational,’ he says.
Eleonora Dewilliams agrees. ‘Venezuelans need a political education, but [the missions] should be more education than politics.’ But, she says, ‘you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.’ Romero concludes with a shrug: ‘I support this mission because it does good, despite all its flaws. I see more pros than cons.’
‘Education is Venezuela’s problem.’ This refrain accompanies any discussion of the country’s history. Venezuela’s ‘morals’ have probably never been better. Yet political dogma has taken the place of illumination in democratic debate. Without some light to lead the way, only stumbling progress is possible.