January 19, 2001

Thousands protest against Chavez's education reforms in Venezuela

                  CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- In the largest protest against President Hugo Chavez's
                  government to date, some 5,000 parents and teachers demonstrated Friday against what
                  they say is a push to tighten state grip on education and introduce leftist ideology in

                  Chanting "Chavez, don't mess with my children!" and waving banners, the
                  demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital city, Caracas, to the Ministry of
                  Education building.

                  The unexpected protest was against a new decree that allowed the ministry of education
                  to fire teachers and administrators in private and public schools based on information
                  collected by supervisors picked by the government.

                  Critics of the decree fear the ministry will sack officials who oppose reforms
                  that promote Chavez's so-called "Bolivarian" ideology -- a leftist doctrine loosely
                  based on the ideas of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar.

                  "We don't want to be led toward communism," said demonstrator Carmen
                  Oropeza, a mother of two.

                  "He tried to mess with our schools and civil society and we will not accept it,"
                  said Elias Santana, a human rights activist.

                  Chavez says reforms are needed to make education more accessible to poor
                  children. Shortly after becoming president in 1998, he abolished registration fees
                  in public schools, a move he claims allowed 400,000 new students to enroll.

                  "Children of the rich who want to pay can pay. But private education can't be
                  driven only by money," Chavez said on Wednesday.

                  Education Minister Hector Navarro said he created the new team of inspectors
                  because teachers' unions had too much control over education supervision under
                  the old system.

                  The reform project is spearheaded by a Marxist sociologist, Carlos Lanz, who
                  says his goal is to expunge what he considers a bias in Venezuelan education
                  toward "consumerism and capitalism."

                  Lanz, who was a leftist guerrilla in the 1960's, says he wants to instill nationalism
                  in students to replace an idea supposedly shared among young Venezuelans that
                  they are "citizens of world."

                  People were worried that the government was going to use education as an
                  instrument for "guaranteeing the success of the revolutionary process," said Juan
                  Raffalle, an opposition legislator and legal adviser to the Chamber of Venezuelan
                  Private Schools.

                  A leftist and self-proclaimed revolutionary, Chavez has created more than 1,000
                  so-called "Bolivarian schools," pilot programs, which, among other innovations,
                  teach military education.

                  Military education has been mandatory in Venezuela since 1978 but only some 10
                  percent of schools enforce it.

                  Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.