CARACAS - President Hugo Chávez threatened yesterday to take over any private schools refusing to submit to the oversight of his socialist government, a move some Venezuelans fear will impose leftist ideology in the classroom.
All Venezuelan schools, both public and private, must submit to state inspectors enforcing the new educational system. Those that refuse will be closed and nationalized, Chávez said.
A new curriculum will be phased in during this school year, and new textbooks are being developed to help educate "the new citizen," added Chávez's brother, education minister Adan Chávez, in their televised ceremony on the first day of classes.
Just what the curriculum will include and how it will be applied to all Venezuelan schools and universities remains unclear.
But one college-level syllabus obtained by the Associated Press shows some premedical students already have a recommended reading list including Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" and Fidel Castro's speeches, alongside traditional subjects like biology and chemistry.
The syllabus also includes quotations from Chávez and urges students to learn about slain revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Colombian rebel chief Manuel Marulanda, whose leftist guerrillas are considered a terrorist group by Colombia, the United States, and European Union.
Venezuelan officials defend the program at the Latin American Medical School, one in a handful of state-run colleges and universities that emphasize socialist ideology, as the new direction of Venezuelan higher education.
"We must train socially minded people to help the community, and that's why the revolution's socialist program is being implemented," said Zulay Campos, a member of a Bolivarian State Academic Commission that evaluates compliance with academic guidelines.
"If they attack us because we're indoctrinating, well yes, we're doing it, because those capitalist ideas that our young people have - and that have done so much damage to our people - must be eliminated," Campos said.
Now some critics worry that primary and secondary schoolchildren will be indoctrinated as well.
Chávez's efforts to spread ideology throughout society is "typical of communist regimes at the beginning" in Russia, China, and Cuba - and is aimed at "imposing a sole, singular vision," sociologist Antonio Cova said.
But Adan Chávez said the goal is to develop "critical thinking," not to impose a single philosophy.
More than eight years after President Chávez was first elected, the curriculum at most Venezuelan schools remains largely unchanged, particularly in private schools commonly attended by middle- and upper-class children.
Anticipating criticism, Chávez noted that a state role in regulating education is internationally accepted in countries from Germany to the United States.
Every such system has its heroes, and in Venezuela, Chávez supporters and opponents celebrate Simon Bolivar, the independence fighter whose armies liberated much of South America from colonial Spanish rule.
Many Venezuelans disagree that Bolivar was a leftist. But when Chávez says all schools must comply with the "new Bolivarian educational system," he means they must submit to oversight of a socialist government making revolutionary changes.
Chávez said previous Venezuelan educational systems carried their own ideology.
Leafing through old texts from the 1970s during his speech, he pointed out how they referred to Venezuela's "discovery" by Europeans.
"They taught us to admire Christopher Columbus and Superman," Chávez said.