President leads 'leftist' march

16th February 2001 at 00:00
Government critics fear new inspectors are to oversee indoctrination of pupils, reports Fabiola Sanchez.

President Hugo Chavez led thousands of parents, teachers and students in a march through the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, to bolster support for his controversial education reforms.

Escorted by a heavy police presence, about 5,000 marchers blew whistles and waved banners bearing slogans defending the government's push to tighten school supervision.

The marchers - some of them high-school students clad in the national blue-and-white uniform - gathered at the presidential palace where the president led them in song.

The march came in response to two protests by thousands of parents and teachers who fear officials' plans to introduce what they regard as leftist indoctrination in schools. At issue is a decree that allows the education minister to fire directors or teachers in both private and public schools based on reports by hand-picked inspectors.

The government has drawn up a "National Education Project" that calls for resisting the influence of globalisation by inculcating a national identity in students. Spearheaded by Marxist sociologist Carlos Lanz, the project complains that television and computers have "imposed values" in a "subtle form of domination and colonisation".

President Chavez has railed against the parents who oppose the decree, calling them "selfish and individualistic". He says his reforms adhere to a new constitution that Venezuelans approvedin 1999.

He vowed to sack educators who "don't understand that education is a public serviceIand that it needs to adhere to a strategic concept".

The president argues that he has made education more accessible to poor children by eliminating registration fees - a move he claims has allowed 400,000 more students to enter school since he was elected in 1998.

He also points to the creation of more than 500 "Bolivarian schools" - these are pilot programmes that extend the school day and provide students with three free meals a day.

Education minister Hector Navarro has tried to win acceptance for the new inspectors by agreeing not to hand-pick them, offering to set up a five-member jury chosen by various educational groups instead. But opponents insist that he should formally revise the decree, warning that there is nothing to keep the minister from changing his mind.

The minister says that the new team of 200 inspectors is necessary because entrenched supervisors are chosen by corrupt teachers' unions that respond to the needs of the political opposition.

Two weeks ago, 97 per cent of teachers staged a one-day strike in protest at unpaid wages, boosting the unions' efforts to resist the minister's attempt to sideline them.

Hector Navarro defends efforts to reinforce a national identity in students, pointing out that Unesco, the United Nations' education organisation, calls for developing countries to defend their cultures in the face of globalisation.

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