'Chavista' school books stoke passions in Venezuela

CARACAS Mon Jun 2, 2014 12:17pm EDT

Children read state-issued textbooks from the ''Bicentennial Collection''  at a classroom of the Eleazar Lopez Contreras school in Caracas May 23, 2014. Venezuela's government has published dozens of new textbooks that glorify late president Hugo Chavez and belittle his adversaries, infuriating opposition critics who call them part of a campaign to indoctrinate school children. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Children read state-issued textbooks from the ''Bicentennial Collection'' at a classroom of the Eleazar Lopez Contreras school in Caracas May 23, 2014. Venezuela's government has published dozens of new textbooks that glorify late president Hugo Chavez and belittle his adversaries, infuriating opposition critics who call them part of a campaign to indoctrinate school children.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's government has published dozens of new textbooks that glorify late president Hugo Chavez and belittle his adversaries, infuriating opposition critics who call them part of a campaign to indoctrinate school children.

Originally introduced in mid-2011, the textbooks have become a hot-button issue again amid a broad state-run review of the education system that some fear could boost the ruling Socialist Party's imprint on classrooms.

"The government has made great efforts to redefine historic events with an ideological bent, and these books represent that intention," said Juan Maragall, education secretary in the opposition-run state of Miranda. "Teachers are concerned."

The books describe Chavez as the man who liberated Venezuela from tyranny, at times making him appear more important than 19th century founding father Simon Bolivar. Ironically, Bolivar was the inspiration for Chavez's self-styled socialist revolution.

The books present a 2002 coup that briefly toppled Chavez as an insurrection planned by Washington while playing down the role of massive opposition protests in this deeply divided country.

And they are generally dismissive of the traditional political parties that are the forebears of today's opposition movement, using the two administrations that preceded Chavez in power as examples to define the term "in decline."

State officials argue the textbooks foment out-of-the-box thinking and critical questioning of the U.S.-led capitalist world order. They insist the bigger issue is the increase in the number of children in school while Chavez was in office.

The government has distributed 42 million copies of the textbooks that make up the "Bicentennial Collection," named in honor of Venezuela's two centuries of independence.

The books were originally going to be obligatory but officials backed away from that after furious opposition to the idea. Still, they are widely used because they are free, reaching an estimated 6 million kids at 80 percent of the country's schools.

Opposition protesters who have staged three months of demonstrations to seek President Nicolas Maduro's resignation have held numerous marches against what they say is the rewriting of history and the indoctrination of students.

Some have even set some of the books on fire, drawing fierce rebuke from officials who likened that to Nazi-era book-burning.

SUPREME COMMANDER

The textbooks make frequent mention of Chavez's social programs that range from free health services to veterinary care. The books often highlighting the benefits of government-subsidized stores over their private-sector counterparts.

"Through the 'My well-equipped House' program, Juanita bought a 32-inch television and 12 kg washing machine for a total of 3,555 bolivars," reads a math book for nine-year-olds.

"Had she had bought these goods in a store, she would have paid 25 percent more for the TV and a third more for the washing machine. What conclusions can we make by comparing the prices of one place with the other?"

Maryann Hanson, the former education minister who oversaw the development of the books, says the Juanita-type examples are "simple and tailored to the realities our boys and girls."

"(They) seek to foment free thinking, emancipation," she added.

The opposition backlash has strayed into inaccurate criticism, helping the government dismiss its critics as an out-of-touch elite.

Some have erroneously claimed that the books say Bolivar, Venezuela's founding father and Chavez's hero, had a Cuban wet nurse. Other have insisted some books include the words "rifles are good."

Reuters did not find this information in books it reviewed.

"This is criticism based on lies, we're not going to allow ourselves to be provoked," said Education Minister Hector Rodriguez, although he has acknowledged the texts can be improved.

Officials say the debate over education should focus on the expanded access to education during the Chavez-era including an 16 percentage point increase in school enrollment.

But the books leave few doubts about their overall inspiration - the first page of each starts with the words "Hugo Chavez: Supreme Commander of the Bolivarian Revolution."

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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