Venezuelans carry out literacy campaign with aid and volunteer trainers from Cuba

Venezuela's Misión Robinson is to teach 1.5 million illiterate people to read and write this year.

LAS TRINCHERAS, Venezuela—“I signed up at the university when I heard they were looking for facilitators for Mission Robinson,” said Milena Réngel, walking up the hill in this rural community just before starting a literacy class the afternoon of October 7. “The class lasts two hours every day during the week. I take the bus to come here from the University of Carabobo to teach a group of 30 people.”

Réngel, 25, a student at the teachers college in the University of Carabobo, is among the more than 100,000 volunteers—overwhelmingly university students—who are taking part in a massive literacy campaign throughout Venezuela. Mission Robinson, as it is called, was launched July 1. It is named after Simón Rodríguez, a nationalist poet and schoolteacher in Caracas who was nicknamed Robinson because of his fascination with the novel Robinson Crusoe. Rodríguez served as teacher to Simón Bolívar—Venezuela’s national hero and a leader of the struggles against Spanish colonialism in Latin America.

The goal of the campaign is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to more than 1.5 million people who are illiterate, about 12 percent of adults in this country of 24 million people.

The Venezuelan government launched Mission Robinson with substantial help from Cuba. Havana has donated tens of thousands of television sets, VCRs, videotapes, and printed material used in the classes. In addition, dozens of Cuban instructors have helped train the young volunteers now teaching peasants, fishermen, workers, and others how to read and write. The program is based on the Cuban literacy campaign that largely eradicated illiteracy in that Caribbean nation in 1960-61, shortly after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Over the last four months, Mission Robinson has become a reality in the poorest working-class neighborhoods of Caracas and most other cities, the indigenous communities of the Amazon and the Orinoco River deltas, the plains of Apure and Barinas, and mountainous rural areas. Literacy classes are also being held in prisons.  
On the hills of Las Trincheras
Las Trincheras is a rural community of several thousand in the mountains about 20 miles north of Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city and one of the country’s largest industrial centers. Réngel commutes there by public transportation because the distance from her university makes it possible—“a 45-minute ride,” as she put it.

The majority of volunteers teaching literacy classes also commute from where they live because they are mostly assigned to go to areas near their residence. There are volunteers in more remote parts of the country who have moved to rural areas and live with the peasants, Réngel and others told us. This is one difference with the Cuban literacy campaign of the early 1960s, when most of the 100,000 volunteers moved and lived with the peasants and other working people they were teaching how to read and write.

We asked Réngel about a news clip we had watched on Globovisión, one of the main opposition TV stations, two days earlier showing a group of students who had volunteered for Mission Robinson staging a protest. These students were demanding the government pay them the stipend they had promised or they would drop out from the second phase of the program.

Réngel said this did not surprise her. “Like everything else in Venezuela, whatever we try to do is full of contradictions,” she stated.

From the initial 116,000 volunteers who signed up to teach literacy classes, some have left the program. “The number now is somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000,” Réngel said. “I know a number from my university who dropped out once they saw the conditions in rural areas where they were assigned to teach.”  
‘I don’t do it for the money’
Réngel said the stipend promised by the government was 120,000 bolivars ($80) per month. The volunteers were told from the beginning there might be delays in getting paid. “In the three months I’ve been teaching classes, I’ve only gotten the stipend once,” she said. “But I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the people of Las Trincheras and for me as a human being.”

Réngel said her first assignment was to go to Las Trincheras with other volunteers and do a literacy census going house-to-house. She was assigned to teach the class at Cerro Las Flores, a section of Las Trincheras where about 1,000 people live.

The volunteer teachers had to find a location to hold the class. “I picked the house of Betty and Alexander, because we could use both the living room and the porch and our hosts were particularly welcoming,” she said. Betty Zequiera is a janitor at the nearby thermal springs, and her husband Alexander Gallardo is a truck driver.

We walked up the hill about a quarter mile to get there. The class on the afternoon of October 7 was held in the patio of the house, with the surrounding green hills in full view, because lighting is better. They had finished the first phase of the program in late September, in which people learned the alphabet, numbers, and received initial reading lessons. About 300,000 people nationwide graduated from the first phase September 21. Those classes were held in Zequiera and Gallardo’s living room, we were told, because they needed to use a TV and VCR.

“Most of the materials—the TV, VCR, videos, and the booklets—came from Cuba,” Réngel said. Notebooks, pencils, blackboard and chalk, and school uniforms for children are provided by Venezuela’s Ministry of Education.

The class is held daily, except weekends, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Twenty of the 30 people who have signed up were at the class October 7. Participation usually averages at about 25 students, we were told. Five were adults, from their 30s to their 60s, most of them peasants. The rest were children or teenagers, from 6 to 15 years old. A number of the older children said they dropped out of the public school because their parents were so low on funds they could not afford even a notebook or a pencil and they often had to work to help the family survive. “I went to school for three months, but then I dropped out,” said Yomaira Mejías, 15. “My parents were not working and they couldn’t even give me a notebook.”

Réngel said that it is hard to have classes with adults and children of various ages all together, but it was the only way to get started with the program. The goal, she said, is to bring everyone up to fourth-grade level of reading, writing, and arithmetic within a year. Then most children will be assigned to regular schools, while adults will be able to sign up for other education programs to continue improving their skills.

After the session was over, Militant reporters interviewed most of the participants. Carlos Jiménez, 47, said he now tries to make a living through subsistence agriculture. “I used to work in construction, but there are no jobs now,” he said. Others in the neighborhood used to work in factories in Valencia but are unemployed now. Manuel Sánchez, 58, said he was a carpenter who took early retirement because of an injury on the job. Both Sánchez and Jiménez said they had gone to school decades ago, but then dropped out and forgot how to read and write since they did not use the skills. It has now come back to them.

All those interviewed said they would do anything to stop the opposition from toppling Chávez. The nationalist president was elected in 1998, and reelected two years later, with huge popular support against the traditional capitalist parties. Since 2001, when his government passed a new agrarian reform law and other legislation that cut into the prerogatives of finance capital, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has gone out of its way to oust the president, with Washington’s blessings. After a military coup attempt and a two-month employers’ lockout failed due to massive mobilizations by working people, the opposition has focused on organizing a referendum to recall Chávez (see article linked below).

Venezuela’s closer ties with Cuba, including the program that has brought some 2,000 Cuban doctors to the country’s poorest neighborhoods (see last week’s issue) and Mission Robinson, are part of the reason for the hostility of local capitalists and landlords towards the Chávez administration.  
Opposition charges ‘indoctrination’
An article in the opposition daily El Universal, published on October 7, the day Militant reporters visited Las Trincheras, was titled: “Segunda Torres, former head of planning for INCE: ‘Mission Robinson is a great electoral ploy.’” INCE is the National Institute for Educational Cooperation, which is now in charge of many aspects of the literacy program.

“The literacy plan is a great electoral ploy,” Torres was quoted saying in El Universal. “It’s a question of numbers. A goal of teaching one million to read and write, more than 100,000 literacy teachers—who receive stipends, food, and credits; this will obviously translate into votes for Chávez.”

In an earlier article published in the June 26 El Nacional, the second major opposition daily, the president of Venezuela’s Teachers Federation charged that with Mission Robinson the government “is creating an army of youth in order to indoctrinate.”

These accusations are helping to solidify support for Chávez among the toilers. When we showed the Universal article to Jiménez and Sánchez, they laughed and dismissed the claims as ridiculous. They both said, however, that they do intend to vote against the recall referendum and take part in more activities against the opposition.

Responding to the claims that the government is “Cubanizing” the country through the volunteer doctors program and the literacy campaign, Sánchez said, “There is no Cubanization, we are simply trying to take our destiny into our own hands. This time we are trying to do it in a bloodless way.”

Sánchez said he knew about the Cuban Revolution from the 1960s. He had been a member of the Armed Forces for National Liberation (FALN) in 1965-1966. The FALN was one the groups that carried out guerrilla warfare as a strategy to topple the capitalist government in power at that time. Sánchez said he was part of an operation to try to recover a weapons shipment from Cuba to the FALN in 1965. The shipment was intercepted by the Venezuelan army, he stated.

“They say Fidel executed many, but how many thousands did Batista kill?” he asked, referring to Cuban president Fidel Castro and Fulgencio Batista, who headed a U.S.-backed dictatorship in the Caribbean island until he was overthrown by Cuban workers and peasants on New Year’s Day 1959.

The second phase of Mission Robinson began in early October. Classes will last through July 2004, aimed at taking participants through the fourth-grade level of education. Phase three, scheduled to start in October of next year, will last through July 2005, when those graduating are supposed to reach the sixth-grade mark.

According to the Cuban daily Granma, some 300,000 Venezuelans graduated from the first set of literacy classes by September 21. In events throughout the country in September, Chávez and other government officials handed literacy certificates to 200,000 people. In one such event at Miraflores, Jesús Serpa, a peasant from the mountainous areas in the state of Miranda, said that no other government had paid attention to the needs of working people in the countryside, such as teaching everyone how to read and write.

“We have with us here the teacher Leonola Relys,” Chávez said in response, according to Granma, “representing the Cuban people, Fidel, and this army of collaborators who are helping us to achieve what seemed unthinkable.”  
Literacy method developed by Cuban
Relys is the Cuban teacher who developed the literacy method now used in Venezuela, which associates letters with numbers since most people who are illiterate have some knowledge of numbers from daily activities on the job, playing games such as domino, or buying food in the market. Relys served on a literacy campaign in Haiti prior to taking major responsibility for Mission Robinson. In an interview with Granma in June, she said, “I had the opportunity to take part in the literacy campaign in my country as a teenager, which moved me because I taught very humble peasants to write their names and helped them in writing their first letters and reading their first books.”

The method has been very effective, said Adrian Viana in Barrio Nuevo Chapellín, a working-class district in El Recreo neighborhood of Caracas, October 3. Viana is a high school student who organizes and teaches literacy classes there. “In this barrio of 3,000 people we identified 58 as illiterate by doing a census through house-to-house visits,” he said. “Last week we completed the first phase with 25 of these people, of whom 21 graduated. Most illiterate people here are older women.”

There was a similar situation at a literacy class in the Montepiedad section of the January 23 neighborhood of Caracas October 8, where all participants were women workers. No children take part in that class, said Carolina Valecillos, 19, the literacy teacher there.

Classes are also taking place among Venezuelans in some of the most remote areas of the country, such as the Piaroa Indian tribe in the Amazon, in southern Venezuela, near Brazil. According to Javier Labrada, who is heading the Cuban team aiding Mission Robinson in Venezuela, more than 25,000 indigenous people have enrolled in the literacy classes. About 1,700 inmates in various prisons across the country are also taking part in the literacy program.

In addition to the 1.5 million illiterates, another 2 million Venezuelans have never finished basic education. Mission Sucre, which began this fall, offers free adult education courses to people seeking to improve their skills.

During a visit to Cumaná, a fishing center on Venezuela’s northern coast 300 miles west of Caracas, Tomás Blanca, a fisherman there, proudly displayed his receipt for having signed up for such a class in the evenings.

Illiteracy rates among fishermen there are much higher than the national average of 7 percent. During a visit to the San Carlos neighborhood of Cumaná in July 2002, Militant reporters were told by Delia Bermúdez that she had heard from Cuban physical education teachers and doctors in the area that Cuba eliminated illiteracy quickly after the 1959 revolution that overthrew the Batista dictatorship. “I don’t know exactly how they did it, but that’s what we need here,” she said. Her wish is beginning to come true a year later. This is increasing the self-confidence of millions of working people who more and more speak out and are willing to act against the opposition efforts to restore a relationship of forces more favorable to the bosses.  
‘Our weapons are our pencils’
“They say we are being indoctrinated but this is not true,” Ana Bolívar, 49, a worker taking part in a literacy class at the Montepiedad section of the January 23 neighborhood of Caracas, told Militant reporters October 8. “We are learning how to read and write for the first time because the opposition never allowed us to before. They accuse us of being armed, but the only weapons we have are our pencils.”

The January 23 neighborhood is a working-class district on the hills overlooking downtown Caracas, near Miraflores, the presidential palace. Hundreds of thousands of working people from this area poured out toward Miraflores on April 12, 2002, the second day of the military coup against Chávez, helping foil the attempted overthrow of the government.

Referring to that experience, and explaining—in a typical comment—workers’ hatred towards the pro-imperialist opposition, Celina Azuaje, an unemployed garment worker attending the same literacy class as Ana Bolívar, added: “We also have the courage to go down to Miraflores to defend Chávez one more time if they try to topple him again.” 

Originally published at: http://www.themilitant.com/2003/6739/673902.html