In Venezuela, Words Spread Far and Wide

Until Mission Robinson, the education drive that the government claims will virtually eradicate illiteracy nationwide by the end of June, many indigenous communities were deprived of more than knowledge.

ISLA PEDRO CAMEJO, Venezuela — In a thatch-roofed hut, two dozen barefoot adults and children, a few dogs and a monkey named Pepe cluster around the strange equipment that has arrived by canoe.

Behind the hut, which serves as the village schoolhouse, Alejandro Fernandez fires up a gas-powered generator with five or six pulls on the whipcord, then connects an extension cord to a television and VCR. The snowy display that signals no reception awes the indigenous Puinave assembly.

Teacher, handyman and rare link with the modern world, Fernandez pops in a cassette for the community’s first Spanish-language instruction, which begins with a slogan from Cuban liberation hero Jose Marti: “To be cultured is to be free.”

This remote island in the Orinoco River is one of the last and most isolated enclaves targeted in Venezuela’s vaunted campaign against illiteracy, which in less than a year has taught 1.2 million people, from the slums and the jungles, to read and write in the national language.

By the program’s end, the 36 families on Pedro Camejo should have mastered at least sixth-grade Spanish, augmenting their native Puinave and Curripaco languages, which have no written form and are little understood beyond the swift, muddy waters that surround their island.

Until Mission Robinson, the education drive that the government claims will virtually eradicate illiteracy nationwide by the end of June, many indigenous communities were deprived of more than knowledge. Ignorant of Spanish, the tongue of the conquistadors and Venezuela’s only official language, residents in Pedro Camejo, for example, could rarely ask for social assistance or healthcare when they made their way to the nearest city, Puerto Ayacucho, a two-hour drive or three-day walk beyond the mainland canoe landing.

Despite decades of disenfranchisement in a country where neither broadcasts nor ballots have been offered in anything but Spanish, many here in the crude outback of Amazonas state, Venezuela’s poorest, have yet to be persuaded that learning to read and write in another language will change their lives for the better.

On the day Fernandez inaugurated the Cuban-made video instruction program, the village elder snubbed the event, choosing instead to go fishing. A woman on the far side of the island, whose three oldest daughters have married and moved to the mainland, refused to let her 14-year-old make the trek to the makeshift schoolhouse. She was afraid the girl might follow in her sisters’ footsteps.

“There are two other women on the island who don’t come to class because they say an old parrot doesn’t learn to talk,” says Fernandez, a mestizo settler who earns about $80 a month shuttling between here and Puerto Ayacucho to bring in supplies and oversee the classes.

Still, most villagers are eagerly grasping the lifeline to the outside world, even if they can rarely articulate what they expect from a midlife education.

“I want to understand more,” says Maria Rodriguez, whose son, Daniel, 18 months, clings to her calf as she uses a freshly sharpened pencil to trace letters in a notebook.

Her brow furrows when she is asked whether she wants to learn Spanish to move away from here, get a job, or communicate with other Venezuelans when visiting the mainland to sell fish or go to market. A nod comes only with the suggestion that Spanish might help her get medical attention for her son if he falls ill. The island has no clinic or doctor, only an elderly woman whose herbal remedies are no match for epidemics of malaria and dengue fever.

For Emilio Diaz, a 43-year-old father of four who has traveled often to Puerto Ayacucho as well as to the Colombian side of the river, which serves as one stretch of the border between the countries, learning to read and write in Spanish is an inescapable parental obligation.

“It won’t change my life day to day, but I want to know it anyway. It will help us understand the political life of the country. It will give my children better chances. I have seen the Internet and I want them to know it too, to have access to all the world’s information,” says the fisherman, who speaks of his own life as if it were almost over.

Unlike most of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples, the villagers have some command of spoken Spanish. The Puinave share the island with a smaller enclave of Curripacos, who speak their own impenetrable language, compelling both tribes to maintain a grasp on Spanish to communicate with each other.

Government officials acknowledge that there is resistance among some indigenous groups to assimilation in the country of 24 million. Members of the Yanomami tribe, farther south and deeper into the jungle, have greeted the linguistic missionaries with fusillades of spears and rocks, says Pedro Aputo, deputy director of education in Amazonas state.

“Speaking Castilian is difficult for ancestral communities like the Yanomami, but they need to communicate with the rest of the country like everyone else,” he says. “It’s like English in the United States — if you don’t know it, you can’t fully enjoy your rights as a citizen.”

The program isn’t without pitfalls. Although the teaching materials include a proficiency test to determine whether a student has reached sixth-grade reading level, the failure rate of about 3% acknowledged by program officials seems grossly understated. Many students in indigenous areas have trouble comprehending oral Spanish, hinting at the difficulty they may have in retaining their reading and writing skills once the pressure of the national literacy crusade is over.

President Hugo Chavez’s government touts the mission’s successes, but there is no reliable independent measure of its effectiveness.

Mission Robinson is named for Latin American philosopher Simon Rodriguez, who was liberator Simon Bolivar’s tutor and traveled under the pseudonym Samuel Robinson while in exile. The program has been both praised and lambasted for the side effects of the quest to eradicate illiteracy, which stood at 9% nationwide when the program started but was as high as 60% in indigenous areas.

Ever since Isla Pedro Camejo received its TV set and later a satellite receiver, children have taken to watching the Cartoon Network between lessons. Fernandez has brought in rented movies to show in the evening, transforming the schoolhouse into a cinema — and what some elders view as an unwelcome distraction from the tradition of family gatherings after the workday.

The literacy campaign has affected indigenous life, but it is hardly the first intrusion. A Baptist Church built by missionaries stands behind the schoolhouse. A trading post at the canoe landing sells cornmeal, sugar, disposable razors. A garbage pit brims with empty soda bottles and candy wrappers. An 8-year-old girl whose parents studied on the mainland is named Whitney.

Opponents of Chavez accuse him of using the program to boost his standing among rural indigenous peoples, who make up less than 2% of the population and have rarely been politically active.

They also lament the leftist revolutionary messages embedded in the lessons from communist Cuba, which provided the televisions, the VCRs and the videotapes, in which Cuban teachers speak in their idiosyncratic Spanish.

Cuba has sent 12,000 volunteer teachers, doctors and trainers to Venezuela, partly to compensate Caracas for discounted oil sales that help keep Havana’s economy afloat. The Cubans train program “facilitators” like Fernandez but have no direct contact with students.

Priscilla Rincones, the program’s coordinator in Amazonas, says each village facilitator can revise the curriculum as local authorities desire. She disputes contentions by Chavez opponents in Caracas that the Cuban-made presentations are aimed at winning over Venezuelans to the claimed virtues of a workers state.

Modeled loosely on the 1961 literacy brigades that swept across Cuba two years after Fidel Castro came to power amid an illiteracy rate of nearly 50%, Mission Robinson uses the Cuban materials for expedience and economy, says Roselena Ramirez, a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry in Caracas.

“In most cases, the [Cuban] lessons are applicable to Venezuelans. It would have cost a lot of time and money to make the videos ourselves, and they would in any case be in Spanish,” she says. “We have 32 ethnic groups with their own languages, and there is no way we could tailor a program to each one.”

In the indigenous Piaroa settlement of Progreso de Galipero, however, Florinda Blanco, 23, looks perplexed as she parses the guiding phrase of Lesson 10 in her social studies section: “Labor is the activity that most ennobles men and women,” the Cuban presentation contends in Marxist-Leninist fervor. “Labor is a source of inexhaustible pleasure.”
Hernan Garcia, a 44-year-old Piaroa who grows yucca, pineapple and cassava on the community’s plantation, expresses doubts about the glory of work, noting that he finds more pleasure in the bosom of his family than in the fields wielding his hoe. But he praises the program that has, in just a few months, lifted him from illiteracy, and he looks forward to his certification at the sixth-grade level.

“I didn’t know how to read and write before. I knew how to plant the seeds and how to harvest the crops. Now I can also prepare the reports and the invoices,” says Garcia, a father of eight. Nearby, his wife, Lucila, hunkers over a workbook at a battered desk in the concrete schoolhouse that is illuminated by a single bulb.

Teacher Ramon Perez says that the village, an hour north of Puerto Ayacucho, has had an elementary school for a decade but that adult education in the evenings began only in October with Mission Robinson.

Of the 60 people in the village, 40 were illiterate a year ago, community leader Miguel Garcia says. Now only three cannot read or write, all of them elderly men who refuse to spend their evenings in a classroom after toiling all day in the fields, he says.

The program — which costs the government more than $16 million a month — has already surpassed the United Nations definition of full literacy by driving the illiteracy rate below 5%, national director Omar Calzadilla says. He expects the final push to bring the rate below 1%.

Chavez opponents dismiss the campaign as political maneuvering.

“It’s hypocrisy and propaganda,” says Jesus Torrealba, an opposition leader with the Democratic Coordinator alliance, which is seeking a referendum to recall Chavez from office. “The president has invested in Mission Robinson while the education system across the country has fallen apart.”

Some accuse the president of conspiring with Castro to steer Venezuela down a path that brought Cubans equality but at a miserable level. Calzadilla, however, rejects the notion of ideological enticement.

“It’s a stupid argument, that we’re going communist,” he says with a dismissive wave.

“But there is a political element here, one any leadership could have attended to in the past 30 years but didn’t. People will participate in elections once they have their basic needs taken care of.”

There is no organized effort to register voters among the newly literate — at least not yet. But those helping to illuminate the indigenous about the opportunities that come with citizenship see nothing sinister in the government tapping a new constituency.

“This community was abandoned before the literacy campaign. The only attention anyone even gave to the state was when there was going to be an election,” Fernandez says.

“Literacy allows the people here to open up their consciousness to their rights.”