"In a socialist arepa restaurant, an arepa and a juice cost 12 bolívars. If three families of five people go out to eat, and they consume 21 arepas and 21 juices, how much did they spend?"
This simple math problem is part of a new fourth-grade textbook being freely distributed in Venezuela's schools. The problem references "socialism" and one of the government's flagship social programs, the heavily subsidized arepa restaurants. Many Venezuelan parents point to these and several other examples to allege that the government wants to indoctrinate school children. This has prompted them to join students in the country's streets.
There are many reasons why Venezuela's opposition has been protesting for the past two months. The obvious ones are the country's dramatic crime wave and sharpened scarcity of goods, but one of the least reported issues has to do with the government's efforts to meddle in the country's schools.
Venezuela has an extensive network of public schools, one that existed long before Hugo Chávez came to power. Due to the spotty quality of the education these schools impart, there is also a large web of private schools that has always operated with relative freedom, although under close government supervision. This peaceful coexistence, however, was shattered in 2012 when the government passed "Resolución 058." The text, which emanated from the Ministry of Education, changed the entire governance structure for both public and private schools. Recent steps to fully implement it have set off alarm bells in the entire opposition education community.
In order to "promote participatory democracy," the resolution states that all decisions in every school -- public or private -- must involve parents, teachers, students, workers, and even "the community," represented by "communal councils." Including communal councils in these decisions is done in order to "construct a new model of socialist society." Many in the opposition view this as the last straw in a long line of attacks against the rights of parents to freely educate their children. While the government has talked of making schools epicenters of socialist indoctrination for years, they had not acted upon those wishes until now. Many thought the decree would never be implemented, but lately the government has started making good on its ill-favored promise, so the issue has come up again... with a vengeance.
Venezuela's private school administrators are up in arms. They reject the idea that government-sponsored organizations such as the colectivos -- infamous for allegedly participating in the repression unleashed on protestors -- should be allowed to participate in the decisions of their schools. They view the new regulation as "a Trojan horse" through which government groups will penetrate all of the country's schools to indoctrinate children. Scenes of parents in Caracas and Valencia peacefully protesting the government's meddling have become a common occurrence.
Local NGOs have also lashed out at the decree as a violation of the constitution. They argue that since Venezuelans rejected including "socialism" in the constitution in the 2007 referendum -- the only election Hugo Chávez ever lost -- the freedoms enshrined in the original text must prevail. They also claim the decree is unworkable, since making school outsiders the main decision-makers in the schools will only lead to chaos.
However, their main concern is that the new regulation takes power away from parents and school authorities, and opens the door for political actors to use schools as places for propaganda. Experts agree, pointing to the slanted nature of some of the textbooks currently being distributed. They point, for example, to an illustrated copy of the constitution that is being sent to many schools in which Hugo Chávez himself is portrayed as a quasi-religious figure along with Simon Bolívar. The pictures show Chávez teaching children and Nicolás Maduro standing next to the actual text of the constitution. (In the photo above, hundreds of these illustrated constitutions are delivered to a school in Caracas.)
Joining the protests are some of the country's teachers, who feel they will be unfairly "evaluated" by members of the community, school workers, or even students. They have also pointed out that both the textbooks and the computers the government hands out to students for free contain charged political content that mentions the government's social programs and ideology in a highly favorable light, obviously slanted to portray the government's point of view.
The government has only fanned fears of political indoctrination in recent weeks, launching a mandatory nationwide "poll" in all of the nation's schools where, among other things, they allegedly ask students for personal information as well as their opinion on the current state of their education. Many parents are outraged. Participation in the poll is mandatory, but just in case, the government has made efforts to lobby teachers in order to ensure their cooperation. The government is rewarding successful completion of the poll with freebies: Teachers who push the poll onto their students will receive books, a computer, and courses.
Venezuela's schools have a seemingly endless slew of problems. Their infrastructure is generally in terrible disrepair, and the quality of the education they provide is spotty at best. However, it appears as though the government is more interested in scoring political points than actually helping Venezuelan students get a decent education.
JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images