Venezuelan Bishops Battle Chávez Over Education Reform

Prelates Fear It´s an Excuse for Ideological Indoctrination

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CARACAS, Venezuela, FEB. 8, 2001 ( When the president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference took the podium at its general assembly early in January, few doubted that he would be critical of the government of President Hugo Chávez.

And even fewer doubted what would be the focus of Archbishop Baltazar Porras´ criticism: the government’s education “reform” plans, which would strip parents and the Church of much of their authority to direct the education of Venezuelan children, according to a report in the current National Catholic Register (

In 1999, when Chávez — a former paratroop colonel who attempted a coup seven years earlier — was elected by a landslide, the Venezuelan bishops were persuaded to give mild but clear support to his bold program to tackle widespread corruption.

However, the good relationship between the Church and the Gospel-quoting Chávez, 46, soon faced its first crisis when a “constituency” process the new president initiated to redraw Venezuela’s constitution showed worrying signs of providing him with dictatorial powers.

After Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco denounced the “consistent tendencies to authoritarianism and dictatorship,” a verbal war was sparked with Chávez. Since that clash in 1999, the confrontations between the president and the bishops have changed in issues and scenarios but have been almost continuous.

Still, Archbishop Porras’ speech in early January started with a conciliatory tone, stressing that “the Church is a natural partner and not a competitor for the state.” But after a few positive words about the hope placed in the government by many poor Venezuelans, Archbishop Porras tackled the issue of education reform.

As part of the “refounding of Venezuela” promised by Chávez, the government has announced a new program that will be mandatory to all public and private schools, both religious and secular. The program, according to the government, is aimed at “recovering Venezuelan values and fostering patriotism.” But according to the bishops, it is an excuse for ideological indoctrination.

“We are especially concerned with the implementation of a completely ideological project, through which the government is trying to impose a state policy over the society’s interest,” Archbishop Porras told the Register. “The [education] program looks very much like the ones enforced 40 years ago in Castro’s Cuba or during the ’80s by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.”

The final document from the Venezuelan bishops’ January assembly acknowledges that the education system “requires a deep reform. But the bottom line of a true reform lies in providing the parents with a range of good possibilities to choose what they regard best for their children.”

Added the bishops, “In a truly democratic system, education is the fruit of the confluence of the state, parents, natural groups, such as churches, and educators.”

Leonardo Carvajal, an adviser of the Ministry of Education, said, “[The bishops] are overreacting to a project that has no hidden agenda, just the goal to improve the education of Venezuela.” Nevertheless, he admitted that so far, “the project has not been able to generate the desired consensus.”

Emeterio Gómez, a Catholic economist, told the Register that “unfortunately, I see the regime dangerously leaning to state-controlled policies in economics and to socialism in education.” Gómez said he believes “there is not a single drop of exaggeration in the bishops’ concern.”

The conflict around education tops the bishops’ concerns, but it is far from the only issue. During their assembly, the bishops formulated a list of the other social issues they are most concerned with.

The list includes “the need for a balanced relationship between the government and society, in which the government recognizes the priority of the people over the state,” “the need for strengthening the democratic institutions,” “the urgency of securing an independent judiciary,” and “the urgency of ending needless confrontations between the government and different sectors of society.”

The apostolic nuncio in Venezuela, Archbishop Andre Dupuy, supported the local Church’s concerns during his opening speech to the bishops’ assembly. Archbishop Dupuy said that while “the Church has no interest in a confrontation” with the government, “in an issue as important as education, the Church does not ask for privileges, but only for the needed means to carry out its mission.”

He added, “Nobody can forget that, fundamentally, the right and duty of educating belongs to parents and families. The role of the state is only subsidiary.”

How the confrontation on education is going to end will depend very much on Chávez, a man who once compared himself to Jesus Christ by claiming that if Christ had had the chance, he would have voted for Chávez’s “constituency” reform.

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