Brazil: Latin American unions gear up for national challenges in education sector

On 15-17 November, education unions from 19 Latin American countries assembled in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, for Education International’s 11th regional conference.

More than 700 union activists gave voice to the “Movimiento Pedagógico”, the Latin American movement of teachers, parents and students advocating for quality public education across the continent.

More than 100 million Latin Americans live in extreme poverty, said Hugo Yasky, regional president of Education International (EI). Unfortunately, the conservative governments dominating the region are not keen to change their neoliberal course and address the multiple social challenges confronting Latin America. Yasky urged EI’s member unions to double their efforts to prevent the weakening of their national public-school systems and to resist privatisation and commercialisation of education. Unions must also resist violations of human and trade union rights, he told the conference.

EI’s Brazilian affiliates, which hosted the three-day conference, informed delegates about anti-union measures taken by their national authorities. Last year, the government decided to freeze public expenditure - including the education budget - for the next 20 years. The government has also proposed legislation, the Escolas sem partido Bill, which prohibits teachers from raising certain political and moral questions with their students. EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen, who also addressed the conference, said the Bill was “foolish” and “an unjustifiable vote of no confidence in the Brazilian teaching profession”. He called upon the Brazilian government “to stay out of the classroom”.

Van Leeuwen also expressed concern about calls from new civil society organisations in Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico that “gender ideology” should be banned from the curriculum; these organisations claim that gender equity and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender(LGBT) rights undermine traditional family values. EI’s General Secretary said that the Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire, was still inspiring the teaching profession to educate for democracy, freedom, and social justice.  EI will never accept any restrictions to teachers’ rights and professional autonomy, he stressed.

EI Deputy General Secretary David Edwards briefed the conference on free trade agreements, and warned about their impact on national education systems. He quoted Susan Robertson, author of the “What Teachers Should Know about International Trade Agreements” study, which was presented during the conference: “Saying ‘no’ is the right answer to the unfair deal posed by these trade agreements. But as educators, we also have to say ‘yes’: ‘Yes’ to an alternative development path which will allow us to advance away from neoliberalism, the misery it offers for the many and the rewards for the few”.

Angelo Gavrielatos, director of EI’s Global Response to Privatisation and Commercialisation in and of Education project, said that EI’s research had exposed the very harmful effects of commercialisation on education. EI’s advocacy with international agencies and national governments was bearing results, he added. Gavrielatos also highlighted how education unions in Uganda, Kenya, and the Philippines have successfully mobilised public opinion against the spread of for-profit schools in their countries.

The conference welcomed EI’s decision to extend its global response programme to Latin America. An EI study on educational developments in Uruguay, where the business community and civil society organisations are exerting pressure on the government to create an education market, has already generated a national debate on the need to strengthen the country’s public education system. The programme will be extended to Peru, Honduras, Mexico, and Argentina in 2018.

Dr. Roberto Aguilar, Education Minister of Bolivia, one of the few Latin American countries not adopting a neoliberal approach, also addressed the conference. In Bolivia, he said, substantial investment in public education has led to increased student enrolment, better education quality, and improved teachers’ employment conditions. Although international financial institutions have cautioned Bolivia to curtail its public expenditure, cutbacks in education have not been an option for the country’s president, Evo Morales, said Aguilar.

Among the other speakers at the conference were Argentina’s former Finance Minister, Dr. Axel Kicillof, and Brazil’s former Minister for Gender Equality and Human Rights, Dr. Nilma Limo. 

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