Following a one-and-a-half year hiatus from the United States and a 15-year hiatus from my mother’s family in Florida, I paid them a visit last month. I arrived to north Florida from Honduras, where the pro-coup population remains convinced that Honduran teachers are propagating socialist ideology via opposition to military coups; I was unaware that the educational system of the US had also been infiltrated by socialist ideologues but was brought up to speed by my grandfather, who informed me that my mother’s sister was partially to blame for the infiltration as she had voted for Barack Obama.
It took me a few minutes to figure out exactly who my mother’s sister had voted for as my grandfather refused to use the president’s conventional name and instead referred to him as Chairman Mao. Once I had additionally ascertained the identity of Chairman Mao’s friend Sha-vazz (Hugo Chávez), I was able to comprehend that the latest resurrection of the decades-old socialist threat in the US was a result of Obama’s impending speech encouraging the nation’s schoolchildren to stay in school. According to my grandfather – who could not decide whether this infraction was more serious than Obama’s failure to understand that my grandfather did not want to be covering health care costs for illegal immigrants – the cult of personality had been partially contained thanks to the abandonment of Obama’s suggestion that schoolchildren additionally compose letters outlining how they could help the president. Had it not been thwarted, the letter-writing project would have undoubtedly produced millions of feverish pledges of support for health care coverage for undocumented grape-pickers, possibly cast in language such as “The Five-Year Plan” or “The Great Leap Forward.”
As for Obama’s other alleged source of inspiration, the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela had recently come under fire once again from Venezuelan parents displeased with his involvement in the upbringing of their children following the passage of an education reform bill on August 14, which stresses the importance of equal access to education for all Venezuelans and of the promotion of ethical values and a cultural conscience among students. Chávez has lauded the reforms as facilitating the development of “a new woman, a new man,” the latter half of which goal is addressed in a May 2008 article in the Washington Post entitled “In Venezuelan Schools, Creating a ‘New Man.’”
The article is accompanied by a photograph of uniformed students at the Fermin Toro School in Caracas who are said to be participating in a martial arts session, although this analysis cannot be deduced from the photo itself. Other subjects taught in Venezuelan schools are said to include “classes that extol President Hugo Chávez’s brand of socialism and highlight the menace posed by the imperial power to the north, the United States,” while the principal of the Fermin Toro School is quoted as defining the desired “new man” as follows:
“A Venezuelan who’s highly humanistic, with solidarity, who knows his history, who knows the Venezuelan Indian, who knows all the resources the fatherland has, who knows the history of oil, about why we’re so dependent, about why we’re underdeveloped.”
Opponents of the new man include Antonio Ecarri, who is described as a frequent speaker at parent assemblies in an affluent district of Caracas and who announces that “Venezuelan society” objects to “the implantation of models that inject our children with ideology.” Models in which Venezuelan society is reduced to affluent neighborhoods, on the other hand, might be one reason the Bolivarian government has deemed a national conceptual overhaul necessary. The fact that prior attempts at education and other reforms were followed by the 2002 US-backed coup attempt against Chávez meanwhile does not prompt Ecarri to note any other ideologies at work in Venezuela.
The expansion of Venezuelan society was evident in February of this year when my friend Amelia and I visited the country, our stay coinciding with the victory of “Sí” over “No” in a referendum abolishing term limits for public functionaries. Our activities in Venezuela included seeking free health care at Cuban-run clinics, which were often decorated with revolutionary slogans and other art, such as birthday calendars made of colored construction paper listing dates of birth for clinic staff, Chávez, and Fidel Castro. Whether Obama will expand his proposal for health care reform by forcing insurance companies to celebrate his birthday remains to be seen; the comprehensive and integrated nature of Venezuelan reform was meanwhile underscored when Amelia and I visited an ophthalmological clinic in the countryside to find that it was located on the same premises as a dormitory housing middle-aged former drug abusers who were now being taught to read while simultaneously caring for a population of rabbits.
Further educational innovation was observed in the city of Barcelona, where in the lead-up to the referendum red backpacks distributed on behalf of Chávez’ “Moral y Luces” – Morals and Enlightenment – initiative contained a variety of reading materials, from speeches by Latin American hero Simón Bolívar to collections of Latin American poetry to a copy of Don Quixote. As with free medical attention, Amelia and I were provided with red backpacks despite lacking any sort of qualifications as Venezuelan society; it was not meanwhile clear whether recipients of the backpacks were supposed to infer any similarities between Cervantes’ protagonist and the current protagonist of the Bolivarian revolution.
The Moral y Luces initiative is one of five “motors” driving Chávez’ revolution, with the other motors including constitutional reform and the restructuring of state power. The swearing-in ceremony of the Presidential Council for Moral y Luces in 2007 relied heavily on the pedagogical philosophies of a host of revolutionary figures, such as Cuban leader José Martí’s concept of education for the purpose of liberty, Bolívar’s proclamation that a nation was only as great as its educational system, and the articulation by Bolívar’s educator Simón Rodríguez that teaching produced knowledge but education produced action. Chávez threw a reference to a non-Latin American figure into the milieu when he proclaimed Jesus Christ a socialist.
The swearing-in ceremony continued with Chávez’ appeal to all Venezuelans to join the Moral y Luces campaign in order to provide the Bolivarian revolution with a dose of combustible de alto octanaje, high-octane fuel. As for countries that were not energy self-sufficient, he ordered the United States out of Iraq such that Iraqis could define their own destiny – a battle plan that conflicts with the strategy proposed by my grandfather in Florida, who has additionally advocated the obliteration of Afghanistan and does not appear to mind if the process requires more funds than the implementation of a universal health care program in the US.
Chávez’ pronouncement on Iraq came as a result of the objection that day by the US ambassador to Venezuela regarding Venezuelan definitions of its own destiny via the nationalization of industries. Concerns that Venezuela is now attempting to define destinies other than its own meanwhile surfaced last month in the “Worldwide March against Hugo Chávez,” with advertised participants including Colombia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Roberto Micheletti of Honduras. The failure of the event to live up to its worldwide expectations, however, suggests that it was merely part of an ongoing list of orchestrated distractions from reality such as the notion that Barack Obama is a socialist.