Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Ministry of Education and the Teachers Union

Teachers' unions in Honduras have been a powerful force in dramatizing deteriorating economic conditions for quite some time. Typical of the actions they took throughout the Zelaya administration were strikes in fall of 2008 marked by fiery rhetoric, public takeovers of bridges in Tegucigalpa, and a refusal to conduct classes.

The response to the strikes launched by teachers has been extremely negative, getting to the point that the regrettable Human Rights Ombudsman, Ramón Custodio, argued that the denial of education to students that was produced by teachers strikes should be treated as a violation of human rights, or even terrorism, and those responsible be prosecuted.

So it was a surprise to many when Porfirio Lobo Sosa named as his Secretary of Education Alejandro Ventura, prominent leader of the teachers' union. El Heraldo described him on the occasion of his swearing-in to the cabinet in the least flattering way possible:
the promotor of the most ruthless strikes that have affected millions of children and youths.

Lobo Sosa stated that the naming of Ventura was "a recognition of the teachers' guild". In November, a teachers' coalition called GANADOR, in which Ventura played a leading role, presented Lobo Sosa with a plan for teachers to carry through on the 200 day teaching schedule required by the law, in return for their concerns being addressed by the government. Coverage at the time noted that Ventura was a National Party activist, which in part accounts for his nomination to the cabinet post that so distressed the editorializing reporter writing for El Heraldo.

Teachers refused to return to the classroom in early January, as demanded by the Micheletti regime. Micheletti's government had passed a decree-- Decreto PCM-021-2009-- that suspended instruction for two months in fall, but tried to cover up this sign of weakness by requiring teachers to return a month early for training sessions in January, before the official opening of the school year on February 1. Instead, the Federación de Organizaciones Magisteriales de Honduras (FOMH) said its members would follow the Law of the Teacher (Estatuto del Docente) and return to work on February 1.

And in fact, on January 3, Alejandro Ventura, then still president of the Primer Colegio Magisterial, one of five teachers groups included in FOMH, was quoted as saying that the majority of the teachers would not return to work until the government paid back salaries, as well as a bonus for social adjustment and educational quality called the PASCE. PASCE was supposed to be a payment of four installments of 3200 lempiras a year, on top of base salary. Micheletti's under-secretary of education said that the bonus was not going to be paid because the teachers had not met the quality standards required in 2009, a year marred by extensive strikes even before the coup d'etat.

Ventura said at the time
The teachers have decided that they will not present themselves at the centers on January 4 because the government has not paid the PASCE and in addition various of our comrades on the national level are without salary.

Classes were suspended two months early in fall 2009, El Heraldo noted, because
various teachers had abandoned their students to walk in marches in favor of Manuel Zelaya Rosales.

So the Honduran public is primed to see teachers as part of the suspect internal enemy that supported Zelaya.

FOMH did decide to stay out of the classroom after the coup d'etat, but constituent teachers' groups did not all follow the same course. The Primer Colegio Magisterial that Ventura headed opted to return to teaching. At the time, Ventura was quoted as saying
We understand that we are trying to fix a political problem, whose solution could extend for an indefinite time. In addition, we cannot continue acting irresponsibly with our youth.

Ventura's ability to keep teachers on the job is going to depend on the degree to which he can follow through on his promise to carry out cuts mandated by Lobo Sosa without cutting teachers' salaries or benefits. Just today it was announced that he has signed an agreement with FOMH: in return for back payments of 1400 lempiras, including 300 million for the PASCE bonus, 473 million for vacation pay, 171 million owed to the teachers' organizations, and a payment of 200 million on debt owed to the Instituto Nacional de Previsión del Magisterio (INPREMA). While a staggering amount, 1.4 million lempiras is less than half of the 3.7 million lempiras outstanding, including back-pay for vacations, bonuses, payments to INPREMA, and to the colegios magisteriales that make up FOMH. Probably not coincidental was the announcement that funds from the World Bank would be used in the areas overseen by the Health, Education, and Security ministries. While the stated use of these loan funds is not directly linked to the repayments to teachers, obviously having these funds for other programs relieves pressure on the budgetary priorities of Educación.

So far, the gamble of naming a controversial teachers' union leader seems to be paying off for Lobo Sosa. Teachers had already agreed to go back to the classroom and see what happens with the new administration, as urged by Ventura. While the reported claim by Ventura that 2010 will be one of peace and tranquility in the schools may be wishful thinking, starting out with the teachers in the classroom is politically much better for Lobo Sosa than facing an immediate strike.

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