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EDUCATION: Venezuela Declares Itself Illiteracy-Free

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Oct 28 2005 (IPS) - Venezuela declared itself an “illiteracy-free territory” Friday, announcing that 1.482 million adults have learned to read and write in the past two years, and that less than two percent of the population of 26 million remains illiterate.

“We are no longer poor, we are rich in knowledge,” 70-year-old María Eugenia Túa, who signed up in the Mission Robinson literacy programme two years ago, proclaimed in Congress.

Túa spoke in the ceremony in which the government declared this South American oil-producing country free of illiteracy, in a session attended only by the legislators of the ruling coalition, which holds a majority in Congress.

“It is practically impossible to achieve a 100 percent literacy rate, there is always a small percentage of people we simply cannot reach, but we will not lower our guard,” said Education Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz, standing next to his Cuban counterpart Luis Gómez.

Cuba provided the “Yo sí puedo” (Yes, I can) teaching method created by Cuban educator Leonela Realy, and sent instructors who trained 129,000 Venezuelan literacy tutors.

With that contingent, the government launched its literacy campaign in July 2003 with the aim of teaching one and a half million adults to read and write, and set up a programme offering incentives to those who agreed to attend classes, ranging from baskets of staple foods to land and credit, as well as 100,000 grants of 75 dollars a month, half of the official minimum legal wage.

The people who have benefited from the literacy campaign include 70,000 indigenous people in dozens of communities, who are now literate in both Spanish and their own indigenous languages.

Special programmes were also undertaken for the blind and deaf, and for 2,000 prisoners – 10 percent of the country’s prison population – while people with poor vision visited the ophthalmologist for free and more than 200,000 contact lenses were prescribed without charge.

In a ceremony with President Hugo Chávez Friday, a blind elderly woman gave a demonstration of how she had learned to read using Braille.

Mission Robinson II went into effect several months later, to enable the newly literate adults to complete primary school, and other plans were implemented later to allow hundreds of thousands of people to complete their secondary school education or enter university, with the help of monthly scholarships or grants.

The programme took its name from the pseudonym used by Simón Rodríguez (1769-1854), aka Samuel Robinson, South American independence hero Simón Bolívar’s teacher and mentor.

Because Rodríguez was born on Oct. 28, that was the date chosen to proclaim the end of illiteracy in Venezuela in the ceremony in Congress.

Istúriz said the goal achieved by Venezuela is certified by the Andrés Bello educational agreement among the Andean countries, and by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

UNESCO special envoy María Luisa Jáuregui said “we visited the classrooms and centres used in the literacy campaign in Venezuela, and it is only fair to recognise the political will and efforts made to teach one and a half million people to read and write.”

UNESCO supports Venezuela’s literacy goal, she said, adding that “Venezuela is the first and only country to meet the commitments adopted by the region’s governments in 2002 in Havana to drastically reduce illiteracy.”

Although Latin America in general has achieved universal primary education and several countries have literacy rates higher than 90 percent, UNESCO estimates that 39 million adults are still illiterate in the region.

The most drastic case is Haiti, noted Jáuregui, where half of the adult population is illiterate.

Leonardo Carvajal, the president of the non-governmental organisation Education Assembly and an opponent of Chávez, told IPS that “if UNESCO certifies that Venezuela reduced illiteracy from 6.8 to less than two percent, we will believe it, even if we have doubts regarding the way the official statistics are handled.”

“We still remember that Chávez said that in his first year in office, 600,000 students were incorporated in the school system.but later the Education Ministry’s annual report provided the exact figure: 233,675,” said Carvajal, who has written several studies on pedagogy.

He added that “I do believe an adult can be taught to read and write in a short period of time, and also that a method combining the teaching of numeracy and literacy is effective, because of the principle of moving from what someone is already familiar with to an area in which they are unskilled.”

The government now proposes ensuring that one million of the newly literate adults complete the sixth grade of primary school by late 2006. A pilot group will graduate next December, and another 350,000 are to do so in July.

According to Jáuregui, by 2015, six percent of children now under the age of five will have failed to complete primary school in 18 Latin American countries.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) maintains that at least 12 years of formal education are needed in order to break the cycle of poverty, said the UNESCO official.

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