Education: UNO Goes To School
“Everything [in the Sandinistas' educational objectives] is applicable except the revolutionary part,” said UNO education minister Sofonías Cisneros in a June newspaper interview. “We believe the revolution has no validity, either in Nicaragua or elsewhere.”
With these words, Cisneros signaled the government’s intention to remake education in a counterrevolutionary image. He and his cohorts have wasted no time. In four short months, hundreds of pro-Sandinista principals and teachers have been fired and replaced with UNO loyalists. FSLN-designed textbooks are being substituted with AID-funded materials. Educational goals have been revised and revolutionary student and teacher organizations undermined. These moves have produced deep divisions in communities all over Nicaragua, as parents, students and teachers line up on either side of the educational battle lines.
Hold the revolution Before his appointment, Cisneros was a key lay figure on the Catholic hierarchy’s Education Committee and is said to be a close ally of Cardinal Obando y Bravo. Vice Minister of Education Humberto Belli, who has sweeping powers over educational planning and programming, is a well-known rightwing ideologue who founded the Puebla Institute and has close ties to the US-based Institute for Religion and Democracy. The third in the educational triumvirate, Vice Minister Hortensia Rivas, is a long-time teacher and member of the Socialist Party who helped found an anti-Sandinista teachers' union in 1988. She now oversees personnel and training.
These leaders say they plan to depoliticize education and teach a “scientific” perspective and “Christian values.” Their first salvo was fired at the newly reprinted second and third grade reader, “Carlitos.” Critics claimed that the book, developed by the Sandinistas in the mid-1980s, contained FSLN party symbols, used “aggressive” language and was an “apology for war.”
AID offered $5 million to replace Sandinista textbooks and by mid-August, the “Blue and White” reader was ready. One rural educational supervisor describes how a truck full of the new books pulled up in her town without warning. She was told that all the “Carlitos” readers then in the hands of students should be returned in five days' time, a next to impossible task in an area where schools are widely dispersed and all communication is on foot.
In the city of Matagalpa, another teacher told of children crying as the “Carlitos” readers were taken from their hands. Some went all the way to the dump to recover the book, one of their few precious possessions. Their parents asked why they couldn't keep it if the text was only being thrown away.
The authorities seem to have wanted to make an ideological point: the Sandinista government’s books were good for nothing but the garbage. Teachers speculate that UNO educational leaders may also have feared that if the books remained at large, FSLN sympathizers would continue to use them in their classrooms, in defiance of the minister's orders.
“Blue and White” is an adaptation of a Colombian reader. Whereas teachers largely wrote the textbooks under the Sandinista government, this one was introduced without consultation. Though there was universal approval of its colorful illustrations, teachers say the new reader does not reflect Nicaraguan daily life, particularly that of rural children. Drawings of blue-eyed children, references to Santa Claus and sentences about “riding a bicycle to market” are likely to bewilder them. Mothers who cook, wash and use sewing machines, fathers who work and bring home money and children who run errands are unfamiliar—and perhaps undesirable—models for children who may not have fathers and begin to work in the fields at the age of ten.
One mother wrote in a Barricada opinion piece, “The text… tries to erase our history in one stroke.” She criticized the book for offering an “unreal, subjective fantasy world” that does not prepare children for the real conditions they face.
The Church’s influence is present throughout the book. Children learn that the cross “symbolizes the sacrifice God made for us all” and that the white worn at First Communion represents “purity.” The drawing of a man discovering fire has a face identical to the traditional image of Christ.
Next year the substitution of texts will continue at other levels and in other subject areas, particularly social studies. The ministry has already received 600 sample texts from other Latin American countries that could be rewritten to “fit” Nicaragua as a transitional solution. Ultimately, say administrators, they will produce their own materials.
Only high school graduates need apply One of the Sandinistas' most important educational accomplishments was expanding the availability of schooling into every corner of Nicaragua. Four hundred thousand adults learned to read and write in the 1980 literacy crusade; some went on to become peasant teachers who taught basic subjects to their neighbors. By 1983, four times as many people were studying at all levels as in 1978. Many of the teachers, particularly in rural primary schools, had little more education than their students, but training programs were expanded to supplement their skills.
UNO educational priorities promise to be very different. Already there is a premium on “professionalism” and quality teaching and a rejection of “empirical” teachers who lack formal training. The Ministry of Education sent one well-dressed urban expert into the small town of La Dalia to observe classes. She gave each trembling primary school teacher an hour-long professional critique, starting with the way they said “Good morning.” “It was as if she came from another world, without any interest in getting to know this one,” said one teacher.
While even Sandinista supporters recognize the deficiencies in the quality of education they offered, they fear that the demand that teachers have formal training and meet higher standards will have drastic results. In a country with few qualified people and even fewer willing to work in the countryside, the choice is likely to be between untrained teachers and massive school closures. “We preferred to have teachers with limitations and maintain the service to the community,” said a Sandinista teacher at Matagalpa’s teacher training school.
Some see the groundwork already being laid for school closures with cutbacks in subsidies for school materials like pencils and notebooks. Particularly for rural students, having to travel into town and pay market prices for these basic items instead of acquiring them cheaply from their teacher may put schooling beyond their reach. Dropouts would make it easier for UNO to close schools, cut untrained teachers and slash budgets. Sandinista National Assembly representative Nathan Sevilla reports that budget cuts proposed by the finance minister would mean 100,000 children without schooling.
The ABCs of union-busting UNO's new education chiefs have also targeted rebellious teachers. More than 370 teachers and school principals have been fired or arbitrarily transferred, often to locations far from home. Barricada reports education minister Cisneros saying, “We don't want wise teachers; we want loyal ones.”
As head of personnel, Hortensia Rivas initiated a variation on the union-busting “yellow dog” contract to keep troublemakers in line. Teachers who supported strikes or participated in school takeovers to protest arbitrary firings have been required to sign a “commitment letter” promising not to do so again as a condition of being allowed to return to work. A kind of unofficial “political police” is being established, made up of members of the pro-UNO Vía Cívica organization financed by the US during the elections. The group's first task was to report on all those who participated in the general strikes of May and July.
Vía Cívica activists have also been used against students. Fearing trouble from pro-Sandinista students who were prohibited from displaying red and black symbols at the Independence Day Parade in mid-September, education authorities called out Vía Cívica to do crowd control. After groups of students defiantly wearing red and black scarves and waving Sandinista flags passed by the reviewing stand where President Chamorro sat, they were reportedly pelted with stones and bags of water by the erstwhile parade marshalls.
Hortensia Rivas has made no secret of her antipathy to the pro-Sandinista teachers' union, ANDEN; its leaders accuse her of using her position for political ends. “The vice minister has moved her pawns around to favor her union [the pro-government Nicaraguan Teachers' Union Federation, FSMN], not to strengthen the quality of education,” said ANDEN leader Mario Quintana.
According to FSMN president Mario Casco, all new teachers hired as of mid-August are FSMN members. So are a majority of new regional and municipal ministry delegates, those immediately responsible for personnel decisions. The organization claims to have grown from 3,000 before the elections to 11,230, compared with ANDEN’s 21,823 members.
Rivas has insisted that Ministry of Education (MED) representatives have no reason to meet with ANDEN to discuss violations of the contract negotiated before the elections. Cisneros concurred, saying the contract’s validity must be discussed with the Ministry of Labor and all legally constituted educational labor organizations, thus winning legitimacy and participation for Rivas' parallel union.
At the most basic level, the government seeks to strangle the revolutionary teachers' union economically. ANDEN no longer has the right to automatic payroll deductions of member dues, a serious handicap in hard economic times.
In response to these attacks, ANDEN demanded the firing of Rivas and an end to politically motivated transfers and dismissals. The organization insisted that only objective factors such as professional qualification, seniority and performance be criteria for evaluation. To consider teachers and principals political appointments, said Representative Sevilla, would “lower professional dignity and convert them into servants of the government in power.” ANDEN also demanded that teachers be included in the development of textbooks and overall educational policy.
La Paz Centro: Reading, writing and resistance At the grassroots level, many teachers and students took, not to the streets, but to their classrooms to make their demands heard. In some ten districts around the country, schools were taken over to demand the reinstatement of fired personnel. One of the most heated conflicts took place in a dusty town north of Managua called La Paz Centro, where the Ministry of Education fired the high school principal without warning, replacing her with the parish priest, Father Enrique Martínez. The town's MED delegate argued that the school was built by the church and later confiscated by the Sandinistas, a history other educators dispute. Some of Martínez's critics say Obando's hand was behind his appointment.
Martínez is clearly identified by townspeople as an UNO activist. Sandinista supporters say he will not marry or bury them and he has been known to refuse to baptize children with names like Lenín. His views on education are laced with anti-Sandinista venom. The July 17 High School was “where the Sandinistas brainwashed the young,” and its staff were not really teachers but, party cadres, in his view.
As new director of the high school, named for the day La Paz Centro was liberated from the National Guard, one of Martínez's first acts was to revert to the school's pre-revolutionary name, Pablo VI. Many community members feared that the next steps would be to privatize the school, the only secondary school in town, and impose religious classes. Martínez fired a number of teachers who had participated in the July general strike and announced that students would face strict discipline.
On July 23, shortly after Martínez's appointment, students and parents who opposed him occupied the school, demanding the reinstatement of those fired and the school's former name. The priest, saying he would “break those colts,” led a crowd of several hundred parishioners, some armed with sticks and stones, to retake the building. In the ensuing scuffle, a health center employee was wounded as he tried to pass a first aid kit to those inside the school. With the school once again under his control, Martínez fired 15 teachers and expelled a number of students who had participated in or backed the takeover.
Tensions in town continued high. When grenades exploded in the parish house and in the UNO mayor's residence, both sides accused the other of being responsible. When police arrested four local UNO leaders for the attack on the health worker, the priest angrily asserted security forces were partisan. When students and parents opposed to Martínez asked Vice Minister Rivas to negotiate a solution, UNO supporters got to the meeting first and refused to let them in. Rivas demanded that nine of the teachers fired sign a “commitment letter,” which they refused to do. The others were reinstated with a verbal promise not to engage in further disruptions. Martínez was overheard on the telephone saying, “I divided them.”
The situation had reached a boiling point again by August 10, when some 100 students retook the school, repeating their earlier demands and saying that Martínez refused to recognize ANDEN, the Secondary Students' Federation (FES) or the parents' association. They asked for dialogue, saying, “If this is such a democratic and conciliatory government, it should he possible.”
This time Martínez's attempt to retake the school was unsuccessful, so he called on the police to use force. Instead, the police surrounded the building, preventing anyone from entering, leaving or passing food to the protestors. Meanwhile, Martínez held classes at the parish hall. Only when Vice Minister Belli made an appearance, saying Martínez had promised him that there no firings or expulsions were in effect, did the students turn over the school.
But Martínez insisted that the firings would stand. Expelled students would be allowed to reenroll only if they accepted his disciplinary regime, the priest said. Meeting with supporters, he called the occupiers “antisocial delinquents” and accused the young girls of participating “only so they could drop their underwear,” according to one offended parent.
Some students at Pablo VI say discipline has improved with their new director and they are well rid of the rebels who have left. Others complain that Father Martíinez has abolished their organizations, leaving them “without voice or vote.” These students say the teachers who replaced those fired are unqualified and that some discriminate against them in grading their work.
The revolution goes to school Elsewhere protestors had some partial successes. After a round of national negotiations with ANDEN, ministry authorities agreed to suspend the power of municipal and regional MED delegates to fire or transfer teachers, though a central commission may still decide to do so. In San Rafael del Sur, 5 of 9 teachers were rehired after a struggle. In Tola, 16 teacher transfers were annulled and 6 principals were returned to their posts. However, the next day the municipal MED delegate led a counter-takeover to protest their reinstatement.
Meanwhile, ANDEN teachers talk about developing a pedagogical movement to teach critical thinking and revolutionary values within the public schools using UNO materials like the “Blue and White” reader. Yet others feel they have no choice but to create their own alternative education.
In La Paz Centro, 23 teachers—12 fired from the high school—and 11 community members have founded a new school. At present the institution, which operates in a recreational center belonging to the Sandinista Youth, has 180 students. The school has no financing; the staff is volunteer and parents are helping buy furniture and other materials. Over Martínez's protests, the Ministry of Education says it will accredit the school, but, like other private schools, it will be required to use government texts and submit faculty appointments for government approval.
Despite the limitations, students and staff are confident. They say many of the 600 students still enrolled at Pablo VI will transfer when the school is legalized or when they finish the school year. They challenged Martínez's school to an academic contest. “We are neither delinquents nor antisocial elements,” said fifth-year student Marlon Reyes, proudly.