Education in Latin America


Waging Economic War on Venezuela

          Since early February, demonstrations protesting violent crime and insecurity after a rape attempt at the Universidad de los Andes, near the Colombian border, have echoed loudly and persistently across Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro claims that students and other young demonstrators are “fascist extreme right wing” elements trying to topple his government and that the “Empire and the Bourgeoisie” are waging economic war against Venezuela.  Rather than admit that under the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela has become one of the five most violent nations on earth, Maduro, true to form, chose to demonize his opposition as fascist and anti-democratic.  Since Hugo Chavez came to office in 1998, he began to divide and conquer by communicating to the nation in the most confrontational of terms. Now the confrontations have magnified. The country is divided in two halves, with a fifteen-year history of hatred fueled by the discourse of Chavez and now, Maduro.  Up to now, many of the poor in the urban slums and the countryside have stood by the regime. The opposition has strong support among the middle class and is gaining ground amongst the poor in the face of deteriorating institutions, food shortages and rampant violent crime.

Perhaps Maduro lives in the past. He certainly remembers vividly the times when opposition groups waged economic and political warfare on the nation, reaching crisis point in April, 2002, when elements of the armed forces and the Venezuelan private sector staged a coup that ousted President Chavez for two days. Economic warfare from the right continued through the General Strike, a nationwide protest against the Chavez government which closed most businesses including PDVSA (the State Oil Company). The General Strike or “Paro Petrolero” started in October of 2002 and, after a long, economically debilitating standoff, finally petered out by early March of 2003.

The beginning of the end of economic war between the traditional capitalist upper classes in Venezuela and Hugo Chavez came in early 2003, toward the end of the General Strike. The government imposed controls on foreign currency in February, 2003. Venezuela has always required imported goods in areas such as spare parts, medicines and technology to keep the economy afloat and meet the needs of its people. In announcing the measure, Chavez made the statement, “Ni un dolar para los golpistas”, “Not one dollar for those supporting the coup.”  He made it clear that those loyal to the government would be the only ones to get dollars at legal rates. At that point, those with little or no access to dollars had to get them on a developing parallel market at higher rates in order to finance essential imports. At first, the difference was small (2.1 official rate vs. 2.7 on the parallel market). As time went on, the gap between official rates and parallel rates became larger. Since 2003, exchange controls have been the government’s most effective weapon against the opposition. Along the way they blew gaping holes in the nation’s economy.

In 2004, opposition leaders organized a constitutional referendum to revoke the president’s mandate. The referendum failed, and lists of signers of the recall petition were later made public, and blacklisted for government jobs or contracts.

Then the Venezuelan government had a windfall. In 2000, world prices for a barrel of oil hovered between ten and twenty dollars. By 2005, the price had gone up to around sixty dollars and by 2008, one hundred dollars. Production declined because Venezuela became a hostile environment for foreign investment so new projects and even essential oil infrastructure maintenance were spotty. Production dropped from about 3.5 million barrels to close to 2.5 million barrels a day, but revenues were up and the government was flush with cash. Heavy spending was initiated, not for upgrading or even maintaining the country´s oil, electricity and transportation infrastructure, but for social programs called “Missions” that distributed oil wealth among the poor, for electoral campaigns in which government-affiliated candidates had almost unlimited access to state monies, and for expropriating factories and other enterprises from transnational corporations and the Venezuelan national private sector, who had shown themselves to be adversaries of the regime. Other factories were driven out of business by hostile government regulations and exchange controls. When Chavez took office in 1998, there were 14,000 factories and similar productive enterprises en Venezuela. By 2005, only 5000 were left. By 2005, it was clear that Chavez had won his war against the traditional Venezuelan upper classes and those who had nearly succeeded in permanently confining him to a jail cell on Orchila Island in 2002. Chavez had consolidated the reins of power in his own hands. But at what price? The defeat of the capitalist class in Venezuela cost the nation jobs by the hundreds of thousands and required the country to import what it used to produce.  In the short term this economic hole was filled by record oil revenues, but the long term effects are still being felt today. The economic war Maduro continues to wage was won by the government nearly ten years ago. Current economic collapse is the result of Chavista warriors addicted to the adrenaline of battle – unwilling to loosen their choke hold on Venezuela and allow those who think differently to be considered contributors rather than traitors and fascists. On the contrary, the choke hold gets tighter as critical news outlets are silenced one by one. The latest are independent newspapers being denied newsprint.

Windfall oil prices were a trap into which President Hugo Chavez fell headlong. “Because I can” became the mantra as he consummated his revenge against the capitalist class. His hubris grew, fueling ambitions to become a global player, positioning himself as the inheritor of the mantle of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, in uniting the nations of Latin America against the “Colossus of the North”, the United States. Many of Chavez’ highly-trumpeted initiatives came to nothing, like the oil pipeline that would unite the nations of South America from Argentina to Venezuela. One such initiative, however, was to have a profound impact on Venezuela’s economy. The Charter of the Caribbean Oil Alliance, PetroCaribe, was signed by 13 Caribbean nations in 2005. Venezuela would provide oil on excellent terms to alliance members. The largest shipments of Venezuelan oil under this trade pact went to Cuba – just over 100,000 barrels a day.

Half the price of these oil shipments continues to be paid through bartering the services of Cuban doctors, sports coaches and, increasingly, military advisors in Venezuela. These same military advisors are currently reported to be providing advice in repressing student demonstrations to their Venezuelan counterparts. The other half was to be paid in thirty years at two percent interest. Similar agreements were signed with the other Central American and Caribbean nations of the PetroCaribe group. Whether any cash payments for Venezuelan oil by Petrocaribe countries have occurred to date is unclear. By July, 2013, Petrocaribe nations, principally Cuba and Nicaragua, owed Venezuela 5.7 billion dollars.  PetroCaribe lowered government income considerably as oil exports paid for by cash on delivery dropped by about 180,000 barrels a day.

From 2005 to 2009, the government’s economic war on Venezuela continued. Expropriations of factories and other productive assets such as oil tankers and infrastructure increased. Some expropriated factory owners were paid fair price, others took what they could get, and others have yet to be paid anything. Since the government managed these expropriated firms politically rather than competitively, almost all of them soon went deep in the red, further bleeding the economy, and many later ceased operations. The productive private sector in Venezuela practically disappeared. Many of those not expropriated were forced out of business by adverse government regulations and by price and exchange controls, which allowed firms connected with the regime to import goods essential for the economy with dollars at low official rates, while Venezuelans who produced the same goods had higher costs which continued to rise at inflation rates of roughly 30% per year, highest of any country in the Western Hemisphere. Venezuelan chicken farmers, for example, were undercut by government imports bought with dollars at official rates. This amounted to a government subsidy for chicken, because importers could sell it at low prices in bolivars and still make a profit. Based on costs for subsidized imports with official-rate dollars, government agencies set market price limits for chicken and other products in the basic family food basket.  Venezuelan chicken farmers were not in business to lose money selling at these prices.  Few Venezuelans noticed the disappearance of local chicken producers, and eating out at cheap roast chicken restaurants became a national pastime.

Papeles Maracay, C.A., was one of the expropriated companies. It supplied toilet paper and other paper products for the national market and for export. After takeover by the government, production plummeted. Today Venezuela’s only important export is oil, and it imports toilet paper, sugar, cooking oil, rice, beans, corn flour, beef, chicken, coffee, construction materials and gasoline, as well as everything that was traditionally imported, (spare parts, medicines, technology). Today’s student protestors may not recall the time when a Venezuelan company provided toilet paper to the rest of the continent, but today, being the butt of jokes by other Latin Americans about toilet paper shortages is irritating.

A new private sector emerged, dependent on government contracts and/or access to dollars at official rates: the Bolivarian Bourgeoisie, or “boliburgueses”.  It is widely reported that many of these individuals can get dollars at official rates by presenting falsified receipts, then sell the dollars on the parallel market. This kind of arbitrage is a fine way to get rich if you have the right connections. The currency controls established earlier became an important means of centralizing all power in the hands of the government. Friends of the government were rewarded, and those not with the government were simply not in the game.

Another drag on the economy was the populist decision by the government to freeze gasoline prices, despite 30 per cent yearly inflation. In 2000, Venezuela boasted the cheapest gasoline in the world, and with no price increases and the continuing erosion of the value of the bolivar, gasoline in Venezuela literally became free for all. After a decade of 30% inflation, a full tank of gas cost less than a dime purchased on the parallel market for dollars. And as lack of appropriate maintenance to Venezuelan refineries cut into capacity, production of gasoline in Venezuela was no longer sufficient to supply the national market. It became necessary for the government to import gasoline at world market prices, mostly from the United States, in order to continue giving it away at gas stations across the country. This was a black hole for the Venezuelan economy. How many hospitals, highways and schools could have been built with what has been spent on giving away gasoline?

By 2010, as the productive capacity of Venezuela disappeared, it became clear that income from dwindling oil sales was not sufficient to provide food, employment and other necessities for a growing population. Shortfalls in hard currency were covered by borrowing, mostly from China in exchange for future oil sales. Early into the second decade of the century, Venezuelan national debt had ballooned from 25 billion dollars when Chavez took office to 225 billion dollars. Abruptly, in 2012, with Chavez weakened from cancer and the nation facing an uncertain political future, China decided to discontinue further lending to Venezuela and began demanding payment of previous loans secured by future oil shipments. PDVSA continued shipping oil to China for payments which had already been spent. At that point, dollar reserves plummeted, all the bills came due and it was pay-as-you-go for the Venezuelan government with little access to international credit markets. Without enough foreign exchange to continue importing chicken, Venezuelans woke up to the realization that local chicken farmers had long ago gone out of business. Without enough hard currency, subsidized imports withered away. Shortages of essential items in the family grocery basket became acute. Long lines of people waiting to purchase such common items as milk, toilet paper, flour, sugar, chicken, beef, and cooking oil were common. By 2013, international airlines canceled the majority of their flights to and from Venezuela when the backlog of dollars owed them by Venezuelan government for tickets paid for in bolivars reached three billion dollars. The official dollar was devalued from 4.3 to 6.3, and the cost of a dollar on the parallel market went from 9 bolivars in late 2012 to 64 bolivars a year later, climbing further to 82 bolivars in February, 2014 (dolartoday.com). Inflation in 2013 was far higher than the 52% reported by the Central Bank, because calculations were partly based on official prices of items in the essential family food basket that were rarely available on supermarket shelves. Car manufacture came to a virtual standstill as assembly plants in Valencia were denied dollars to import parts. Oil services companies became highly selective about taking on new contracts because of a backlog of unpaid PDVSA accounts and oil production continued to suffer.

The Venezuelan government’s economic warfare is no longer against the traditional capitalist class. It’s driving the nation into poverty, despite Venezuela controlling the largest petroleum reserves in the world. And the poorer Venezuela becomes, the less the poor will support the current regime. The disintegrating economy is only one of the causes of political and social unrest today. Add deterioration of the transportation, electricity, communications and oil production infrastructure from lack of investment, high indices of violent crime and rampant corruption, lack of any recourse against government abuse against citizens through courts routinely taking orders from the executive branch, and silencing of practically all media critical of the government (highlighted by the recent government shut down of Twitter and the only TV station covering opposition demonstrations, Colombia’s NTN24). Maduro and followers can no longer credibly don the mantle of defenders of democracy battling extreme right-wing fascist opposition elements, after widely perceived fraud in the April 2013 presidential elections won by Maduro by the slimmest of margins, despite heavy campaign spending bankrolled by PDVSA and a near monopoly on television campaign coverage. Venezuela is a nation divided against itself. Demonstrating students across the nation are not a fascist fringe. They have grown up with the Chavez revolution. They’ve not experienced any other system but can imagine a brighter future. Until now, Venezuelans have surprised and impressed us with their patience as they waited hours for the chance to buy a tin of powdered milk or a few rolls of toilet paper, and reacted calmly to frequent outages of electricity. Now they are surprising us in the depth, breadth, and tenacity of their protest.


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Mexicanos! Primero Lo Primero en Educación

La Reforma Educativa Mexicana: Observaciones para que el Caballo Vaya Delante de la Carreta

Image Por Dr. Eric Spindler

En la Reforma Educativa en México, el contenido educativo generalmente ha tenido su complemento político. Sin desestimar la importancia de reformas de índole más política como acabar con la herencia de plazas y su asignación automática, reforzar la efectividad de respuesta a la participación y opiniones de los padres, asegurar la gratuidad de la escuela pública, regular la función de los asesores técnico-pedagógicos y acabar con las comisiones de maestros en tareas no educativas, enfoquemos aquí solo al mejoramiento de procesos educativos que deben seguirse en adelante.

1.            Revisión curricular: Felipe Martínez Rizo, coordinador del grupo del INEE asignado la tarea de revisión de la Prueba ENLACE, reconoció recientemente al dictar una charla (http://t.co/5BFZst8iCw) que el currículo que sirve para guiar los estudios de los alumnos mexicanos es “malo”, porque se han ido llenando los textos de objetivos sin eliminar otros menos importantes, hasta que los textos llegan a ser unos mamotretos imposibles de cubrir en un año escolar. Frente a esta situación, el profesor tiene tres opciones:

a.            Escoger los objetivos que prefiere enseñar o que más le emocionan, y olvidar de los demás. (Esto me hace recordar a un profesor de historia que solo nos enseñaba sobre batallas de guerra, lo que era su pasión.)

b.            Tratar de cubrir todo en un año, pasando rápidamente por los objetivos, siendo el resultando una cobertura similar a la de una laguna que tiene kilómetros de ancho pero con solo centímetros de profundidad. La necesidad de “cubrir” un programa demasiado largo incentiva el uso del modelo pedagógico tradicional en el cual el profesor dicta la clase y los alumnos toman sus apuntes y devuelven los contenidos dados en un examen. Este método es el más eficiente para que un profesor cubra un programa curricular extenso, mas no es el más efectivo en asegurar el aprendizaje de los alumnos. La necesidad de cubrir el programa puede detener un maestro dispuesto a arriesgar su tiempo de clases con métodos más constructivistas como proyectos, aprendizaje cooperativo, y evaluaciones auténticas como presentaciones a públicos diversos. Así, la enseñanza en México queda amarrada a métodos tradicionales que no funcionan con niños acostumbrados al estímulo interactivo de sus teléfonos inteligentes y juegos digitales.

c.             Empezar el libro por el principio y seguir trabajando hasta que acabe el año, con el resultado que los contenidos al final del texto queden sin verse.

Ninguna de estas opciones representa lo óptimo para una educación de calidad. Hay que resaltar las competencias educativas más importantes, acompañado por la eliminación de las menos importantes, para que pueda haber tiempo de ver con profundidad a los objetivos esenciales. Solo así todos los alumnos tendrán un acceso equitativo a un currículo de estudios de calidad. Este es el camino de revisión curricular que han seguido los países que mejores resultados ostentan en la prueba PISA. Para base de decisión sobre las competencias más importantes, debe hacerse caso a los estándares designados para el ordenamiento de la educación básica, que se entiende son los que fueron elaborados por la Institute of Education de Londres y publicados por primera vez en 2010 como “versión preliminar, no citar” (http://ocadizquintanar.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/estandares-curriculares.pdf). Esto sigue, al parecer, como un documento muy poco conocido. Hay que decidir si estos son los estándares y, en caso afirmativo, difundirlos para que todos los actores de las escuelas de la república sepan qué se pretende lograr en la educación de los niños. ¿Cómo se puede medir resultados de aprendizaje sin la claridad de cuales aprendizajes se pretende lograr?

2.            Una vez establecida la claridad sobre los contenidos y las destrezas más importantes del aprendizaje, proceder a diseñar un examen estandarizado y censal que mida de manera válida y confiable dichos contenidos y destrezas. Mexicanos Primero tiene razón en cuestionar la cancelación de la Prueba ENLACE hasta no contar con un instrumento evaluativo mejor. Pero es esencial la revisión del ENLACE para poder contar con una medición de alta calidad. Sin embargo, lo óptimo sería que la evaluación de aprendizaje no se hiciera por un solo instrumento, sino elaborar también otros tipos de evaluaciones. Por ejemplo, la redacción es una destreza de comunicación cada vez más necesaria en el  mercado laboral y en la vida cotidiana, y es imposible de medir con pruebas de respuesta múltiple. Haría falta un examen de redacción calificado por lectores humanos sobre la base de una rúbrica que evalúa diferentes aspectos de la redacción, tales como organización, voz, convenciones de gramática y ortografía, etc.

3.            Avanzar de forma lenta pero segura usando resultados de las evaluaciones para un proceso de mejoramiento continuo de la educación. Como parte de la Reforma Educativa se ha querido contar con un instrumento ligado a la rendición de cuentas y responsabilidades de escuelas y maestros por los logros educativos de sus alumnos o falta de los mismos. Hasta ahora, esto no se ha podido determinar bien por los resultados del examen ENLACE, ya que es frecuente que un maestro trabajando con alumnos de clase media tenga resultados mejores que un docente trabajando con alumnos pobres con menores oportunidades culturales. Es imposible precisar el valor educativo agregado por un maestro determinado en un año lectivo si no se cuenta con los resultados en el mismo instrumento del año anterior. Para esto hay que dar las pruebas cada año a todos los niños en todos los grados escolares. Estamos hablando de un proceso evaluativo que puede ser caro, pero solo así será confiable y útil para determinar en cuales planteles se está avanzando de forma adecuada para mejorar el aprendizaje de sus alumnos.  Comparar el aprendizaje de niños de diferentes estados, planteles, y niveles socio-económicos no nos dice tanto sobre el desempeño de los maestros como comparar el aprovechamiento de un niño (o un grupo de niños) con su propio desempeño del año pasado. Nos permitiría ver cuánto ha crecido educativamente el alumno o el grupo bajo la tutela de su maestro.

4.            Entrenar a los directores y asesores técnicos de planteles educativos en el análisis de los datos arrojados por las evaluaciones de destrezas y contenidos educativos, para que estos a su vez entrenen a los profesores de su escuela en cómo analizar y usar los resultados para impactar a la instrucción en su salón de clases. A nivel nacional, desarrollar evaluaciones formativas parciales que midan en determinadas fechas durante el año lectivo al aprendizaje logrado hasta la fecha, para poder analizar los resultados con protocolos rigurosos y con entrenamiento a los maestros en como volver sobre objetivos que no fueron asimilados al cien por ciento sin dejar de avanzar en el programa de estudios del año. No olvidar apartar tiempo en el calendario escolar para el análisis de resultados y planeación de instrucción remedial por parte de los docentes. Feedback de esta índole facilitaría que el maestro haga los ajustes a tiempo para que el desempeño de sus alumnos en la evaluación sumativa de fin de año, llámese ENLACE u otra cosa, no lo tome por sorpresa.

5.            Si se quiere ligar mediciones del aprendizaje a la evaluación y remuneración de los maestros, y de antemano contando con válidas y confiables medidas de desempeño de los alumnos, hay que iniciar discusiones con los representantes legítimos de los docentes para diseñar un sistema de evaluación del docente que tome en cuenta el valor educativo agregado en promedio a su grupo de alumnos durante el año y otros factores a nivel plantel. Por ejemplo, índices de seguridad de la escuela  y del nivel de participación de los padres en la escuela de sus hijos, junto con otros factores del plantel como unidad educativa podrían contribuir a que los maestros tengan claridad de que hay que salir adelante trabajando en equipo con sus compañeros. Un buen nivel de aprendizaje no depende de profesores trabajando aisladamente, sino es el producto de una escuela de excelencia, con docentes que se ayudan y se enseñan mutuamente.

No es conveniente ligar la evaluación y remuneración de los maestros a mediciones de aprendizaje de los alumnos sin la seguridad de que estas sean mediciones válidas (que midan las destrezas y contenidos más importantes) con resultados confiables que permitan determinar el valor educativo agregado cada año por cada maestro y plantel educativo. Y hay que darle a cada maestro las herramientas para usar los resultados de las pruebas estandarizadas para mejorar los procesos educativos en su aula de clases. Los maestros mexicanos dedicados a la enseñanza de sus alumnos merecen el respeto de que se evalúe su desempeño por resultados atribuibles a su propio ejercicio docente.